Hydrogen is (still) the fuel of the future, says Kia

By Matthew Beecham | 8 November 2017

H2 mobility: Hyundai Tucson FCEV

H2 mobility: Hyundai Tucson FCEV

The hydrogen fuel cell sector has been in and out of the automotive limelight over the past decade. Toyota's announcement in 2015 of making thousands of hydrogen fuel cell patents available on a royalty-free basis brought the technology back into focus. Does this mean affordable fuel cell vehicles (FCEVs) could be on our driveways any time soon? Although there is still some work to go, Kia believes it has the solution.

As the name suggests, a FCEV uses a fuel cell instead of a battery or supercapacitor to power its on-board electric motor. Fuel cells in vehicles generate electricity to power the motor, typically using oxygen and compressed hydrogen. The interaction between the oxygen and hydrogen in a costly and complex metal box is called a fuel stack. Like battery electric vehicles (EVs), they are silent to drive and emit no harmful emissions. The only waste is water vapour.

Cast your mind back a decade or so ago and you'll recall how hydrogen was among a number of promising alternative fuel candidates to replace petrol, compressed natural gas, bio-diesel and battery-electric power.

For a variety of reasons, however, demand for battery EVs has gradually increased to the point where every carmaker offers at least one battery-powered car.

Yet FCEVs have a few advantages over battery EVs. Unlike battery EVs that take several hours to recharge, hydrogen fuel cell cars can be refuelled in minutes.  

The driving range of hydrogen FCEVs is also favourable compared to battery EVs. While FCEV can roam over 300 miles (Toyota Mirai claims 342 miles), most EVs range well below that.

A few carmakers have offered hydrogen-powered FCEVs, albeit leasing them in modest numbers. They include Toyota (Mirai sales to government and corporate customers began in Japan in late 2014) and Hyundai ix35 (also known as Tucson Fuel Cell in some markets) FCEV has been available for lease since 2014. And despite some press reports stating otherwise, Daimler says it still sees a future in the fuel cell.

Although hydrogen FCEVs perform a clever chemical trick, they have some downsides. They are far more expensive than most cars with an internal combustion engine or, for that matter, battery-electric powered one. For example, a Toyota Mirai FCEV will set you back £66,000 in the UK whereas a Nissan Leaf will cost less than half that. 

There are also very few hydrogen refuelling stations dotted around the globe. In the US there are currently just 39 such stations. 35 of which are in California (up from nine in 2014). So you are free to roam around the state but must stay within reach of a station. Japan got its first commercial hydrogen fuelling station in 2014. By March 2016, the country had 80 stations, and the government aims to double this number by the 2020 Olympics.

1,000 Kia FCEVs to be produced annually-

Toyota, Hyundai, Honda and Daimler are not the only carmakers pushing back the technical boundaries of FCEVs. In November 2015, Kia Motors stated it will launch a fuel cell vehicle. The carmaker is targeting a 2020 launch for mass production of an all-new hydrogen FCEV, featuring its next-gen hydrogen fuel stack technology. Kia says it is working alongside 300 partner companies to develop this technology for global markets. Production of the new Kia FCEV is aimed to be around 1,000 units per year, a figure expected to rise as demand for fuel cell vehicles increases.

-with a 500 mile range

Kia's FCEV will feature a fuel stack similar in size to a 2.0-litre internal combustion engine, which development teams believe will offer drivers a high level of durability and power density from the advanced powertrain. Kia engineers are planning to develop the brand's next-generation fuel cell stack to be 5% more efficient and offer 10% greater stack performance, despite being around 15% lighter and 15% lower in volume, compared to current generation fuel cell stacks. The result is a targeted range of more than 500 miles from a single fill-up and a top speed of around 170 kph (106 mph).

Kia's research into fuel cells date back to 1998, which resulted in the creation of the limited production Kia Mohave FCEV, able to travel up to 428 miles on a single fill-up.

These plans, says Kia, will contribute towards its aim to raise its average corporate fuel efficiency by 25% over 2014 levels by 2020. As well as investment in advanced propulsion technologies, Kia will also replace seven out of its 10 current engine ranges with next-generation gasoline and diesel units, while increasing the number of turbocharged engines. Higher-efficiency, multi-speed transmissions are also planned, while Kia engineers are targeting a 5% reduction in the average weight of new car bodies through greater application of ultra-high strength steel.

Meanwhile, Kia's sister brand, Hyundai, has set its sights on launching its next-generation fuel systems on a production car next year. Last summer, at a preview event in Seoul, the carmaker displayed a near-production-ready hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.

While critics doubt whether hydrogen will be efficient or cost-effective for cars compared to other zero-emission, technologies, Dr Sae-Hoon Kim, who is in charge of Kia's fuel cell research, believes that the next generation of FCEVs will be cheaper, more durable and reliable.

Speaking to just-auto during a press visit to Kia's operations in Seoul, he said that the cost of FCEVs will tumble as production increases.  "We can say that fuel cell technologies are technically ready for the market. There is a lot of potential for the cost of FCEVs to come down but production volumes is a very dominant factor."

In terms of the durability of the car, Kim expects it will increase from six years as he told us in 2014: "I think we can expect it can go more than ten years," he remarked.

Kim also referred to an industry group calling itself the Hydrogen Council, who met for the first time at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last January. The group is composed of 17 CEOs or chair people from energy companies and automakers including Hyundai. Its objective is to "increase visibility around the hydrogen solutions currently available and … advocate for the important role of hydrogen technologies."

Seoul-based Hyundai Motor Group (HMG) is the parent of both Hyundai Motor Co (Hyundai and Genesis) and Kia Motors Corp (Kia brand). HMG owns 32.8 percent of Kia Motors, having bought what was once its great rival from the receivers following Kia's bankruptcy. The parent group's HMC and KMC divisions operate independently, with each company challenging the other. Kia had a good sales month in its domestic market last September. In the first nine months of the year, however, its global sales were still 6.1% lower at 2,011,697 units compared with 2,142,596 units a year earlier. HMC and KMC hope an improvement in diplomatic relations between South Korea and China will help improve sales in the world's largest vehicle market in coming months.