Hyundai Hydrogen chief on why the company bet on fuel cells


SEOUL: Fuel cell vehicles that use hydrogen and emit only water have long been a goal of green-energy advocates. They have potential advantages over battery-powered cars, including quicker refueling and longer range. But they remain a novelty, accounting for less than 0.1% of the nearly 100 million vehicles produced each year.
To find out what may be the future for the technology, we talked to Saehoon Kim, senior vice president and head of Hyundai Motor Co.’s Fuel Cell Center. Kim has been working on fuel cell technology at Hyundai since 2003 and led the team that produced the world’s first production vehicle running on hydrogen, based on the company’s popular Tucson SUV.
In 2018, he led the launch of the Korean automaker’s second-generation, purpose-designed, fuel cell vehicle, the NEXO. Here’s what he had to say about:
Hyundai’s decision to develop fuel cells
When we started we had no technology of our own. We weren’t that big in 2003 and it wasn’t easy for us to buy components. We bought a fuel cell power system from UTC Power for $1.2 million. It was expensive and it was really for space shuttles, so technically it wasn’t even for use on the ground. That’s when we decided we needed to develop our own system.
We built an R&D center and in 2006 our Chairman Chung Mong-koo visited it. Until then we really didn’t know what the chairman thought about fuel cell technology. I was a division head at that time, I wasn’t anyone senior. He said hydrogen fuel cell technology is democratic and these fuel cell powered vehicles will be available in Africa. I don’t think he was thinking of earning money but mostly thinking of the need to be socially responsible.
He said: ‘I will give you the money so go and make 100 of these hydrogen-fueled vehicles. They don’t all need to be made with the same technology. Use different technologies in building these vehicles.’
Why hydrogen vehicles are still so rare
Developing hydrogen fuel systems isn’t an easy job because a lot of money needs to be invested in the early stages. It’s very hard to sustain this business unless you have an owner who is willing to invest for 10 years without earning anything. That’s one of the reasons why a lot of companies have given up.
Recently, there has been a lot of M&A activity in the hydrogen-cell sector. Joint ventures are being set up and big name companies are acquiring hydrogen-related firms. Things are changing quite fast.
Last year, Cummins Inc. bought fuel cell systems provider Hydrogenics Corp. and Robert Bosch GmbH, the world’s largest auto-parts supplier, joined forces with fuel cell stack maker Powercell Sweden AB.

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