Hyundai handed over the keys to its first "mass-produced" Tucson hydrogen-powered Fuel Cell CUV in the US in June.

Hyundai handed over the keys to its first "mass-produced" Tucson hydrogen-powered Fuel Cell CUV in the US in June.

The Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster which followed the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in 2011 might inadvertently provide a foot in the door for sales of hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicles to take off, believes the man in charge of Hyundai-Kia's FCEV research and development, Dr Sae-Hoon Kim.

Hyundai is currently the only major OEM with an FCEV (the ix35) in series production, although on only a modest scale, following extensive development using Kia's Mojave/Borrego fuel-cell car as a mobile test bed. Toyota has announced that it plans to become the second company in the FCEV market in 2015.

However, it is not the participation of the world's largest auto-maker which will boost the take-up of fuel cells, believes Kim, but revised Japanese energy policies in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster. Where Japan leads, he thinks, others will follow.

Japan recently re-commissioned its 48 commercial reactors after taking them offline for safety inspections post-Fukushima, but the country's attitude to nuclear power - and indeed its whole energy policy - has changed as a result of the tragic events of 2011. Only four years ago Japan said it planned to meet half of its electricity needs from nuclear power by 2030; now the level is expected to remain closer to the pre-Fukushima level of 30%. Alternatives will need to be found.

"The news from Japan is very encouraging regarding the [hydrogen refuelling] infrastructure," Kim says. "There are fears about nuclear power, but without it Japan relies on expensive oil and gas imports, and it has a low [currency] exchange rate.

"The national energy plan is to go for a hydrogen economy. Japan says that hydrogen is not a small part of the policy any more, but the hydrogen will not come from renewable sources. They will make it from brown coal, using cheap, unused energy, with carbon capture and storage to handle the CO2. It is clear what they are thinking.

"Now we are talking to our parliament about this because the Korean energy system is very similar to Japan's."

There are currently a few hundred ix35 FCEVs in operation in various parts of the world, with more open to offer on a build-to-order basis. Korea has around 100 on the roads; 62 units will be imported and leased in the 2014 calendar year to companies or individuals in California at "special case" low rates; and others are scattered around 10 of the largest markets or greenest-minded countries in Europe. Canada will become next to enrol in the programme, says Kim.

"It is under discussion about which will be the next [fuel cell] model, and when," he adds, "but it is not true that Hyundai is the fuel-cell company while Kia is for electric vehicles. Both types are for both companies. For the moment, volumes are small and it is not wise to have Hyundai and Kia competing."

Kim is one of the foremost experts on FCEVs within any OEM and one of the greatest ambassadors for the technology. His enthusiasm is infectious. "The first patent was in 1955," he says. "Since it became clear that it was possible to use a fuel cell in a car, the performance has improved by 140 times. The power of the [fuel] stack is improving so much that in the near future the problem could become one of cooling."

For now, however, there are two main issues, and they do not include the huge cost of a technology currently produced on only a very small scale.

"The first is the infrastructure. Even in California there are only nine 700-bar stations [the higher the fuelling pressure, the greater the car's range on a tank of hydrogen].

"Here in Korea, the government is supporting the [FCEV] deployment programme, and several municipalities are preparing fuel stations, but half of the population of the country lives in Seoul or its satellite area. We think 40 to 50 are needed for coverage, and we are discussing with various people the time frame.

"The second problem is durability. We are now at six years, but with the next car we will be at 10."

Then the enthusiast replaces the scientist once again. "With a fuel-cell vehicle there is no NOx, no particulates and the chemical filter cleans the air," says Kim. "It's like running a vacuum cleaner for the air.

"One fuel-cell vehicle can provide 10kW of energy for the grid or for homes. If there were 100,000 cars that would be one gigawatt, or the same as one nuclear power station."      

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