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the road ahead

The Hyundai Motors logo on a steering wheel on display at the company's headquarters in Seoul, South Korea, on March 22, 2019.KIM HONG-JI/Reuters

When it comes to slowing climate change, hydrogen is elemental, Hyundai says.

“I’m here to tell you that hydrogen is a powerful solution to combatting climate change,” said Hyundai chairman Euisun Chung in an online press briefing. “Our goal is to have hydrogen used by everyone, for everything, everywhere by 2040.”

Within 20 years, hydrogen fuel cells (HFC) – which use a chemical reaction to turn hydrogen and air into electricity and water – could power public transit, road, rail and marine freight, and even buildings and entire neighbourhoods, Hyundai said.

While companies including Hyundai, Honda and Toyota build hydrogen fuel cells now, the auto industry has largely been focused on battery technology.

Over the last fifteen years, fuel cells have faced roadblocks, including limited production of green hydrogen that’s not a by-product of fossil fuels, the lack of hydrogen fuelling stations and the cost of fuel cell technology.

Finally hydrogen’s time?

But all that’s on the cusp of changing, said Saehoon Kim, Hyundai executive vice-president and head of the fuel cell centre.

Right now, Hyundai uses fuel cells to power its zero-emissions Nexo SUV, which launched in 2018, and XCEINT commercial trucks.

There are 45 XCEINT trucks operating in Switzerland. They cover about 210,000 km and save about 130 tons of CO2 every month, Hyundai said. So far, there are no plans to sell them in Canada.

That said, sales of HFC passenger vehicles are still a fraction of total EV sales. Although the company said it sold 4,700 Nexos worldwide between January and June of this year, it has only sold 15 in Canada since 2018.

In 2023, the company plans to introduce next-generation hydrogen fuel cells which are 30 per cent smaller, 50 per cent cheaper and twice as powerful than its cells now.

By 2028, it will offer fuel-cell versions of all its commercial vehicles. While Hyundai will still sell diesel- and gas-powered versions, it won’t be introducing new models with combustion engines, Hyundai said.

By 2030, fuel cell technology should cost about the same as battery technology, Hyundai said.

“We know costs will come down with economy of scale [as we build more],” said Saehoon Kim, Hyundai executive vice-president and head of the fuel cell centre. “We need to save costs in production – I think we’ve been using batteries for a long time, [so] on fuel cells we still have work to do.”

Why hydrogen?

While the auto industry has largely been focused on battery technology, Hyundai said batteries alone won’t help reduce carbon dioxide emissions from transportation – which contributes to about a quarter of global CO2 emissions.

“We know both [batteries and hydrogen] will be needed in the future in very different conditions,” Kim said. “We don’t know what barriers we’ll face, so we need to be prepared for each energy.”

Why can’t we just stick with batteries for everything? Batteries add size and weight to vehicles and they take time to recharge.

They make sense for passenger vehicles, but not for commercial transportation – where cutting weight, having space for cargo and saving time are all crucial.

A hydrogen fuel cell truck can be refilled in about the same time as a diesel-powered truck and offers similar range – without the bulk of a massive battery.

Like batteries, hydrogen also offers the ability to store electricity and use it later. Excess renewable energy from solar or wind power could be turned into hydrogen through electrolysis – and then stored or exported.

“Nomads preserve milk as cheese and use it over winter,” Kim said. “Electricity is like milk – hydrogen will play a similar role to cheese.”

Still, adoption, research and development of fuel cell technology is 10 to 15 years behind battery technology, but Hyundai thinks it can catch up, especially if its embraced by the massive Chinese market

“We started late compared to batteries,” Kim said. “But I think China has the power to do that faster.”

Hydrogen fuel cells have applications beyond vehicles, Kim said. For instance, banks of them could power buildings and neighbourhoods.

Hyundai also revealed three hydrogen-powered concepts – a robot tractor trailer, a robot rescue vehicle for fires and evacuations and a hydrogen-powered hybrid race car.

While they’re faster to refuel and lighter, fuel cells still can’t beat battery electric vehicles for sports performance, said Albert Biermann, head of research and development for Hyundai and Kia.

“This is a good exercise to compete in racing and drive the development forward,” Biermann said.

One size won’t fit all?

Batteries and fuel cells shouldn’t be seen as competitors, Biermann said. They’ll both be needed, depending on the market, Biermann said.

“It all depends on the regional situation and the availability of hydrogen,” Biermann said.

In a briefing on battery technology last week, Toyota, which also sells fuel cell vehicles, said its future strategy will vary by what consumers are looking for in each country and the resources available there.

For instance, in Europe, where more people drive smaller cars, there’s already a strong push toward BEVs and they’ll likely increase. But North American consumers prefer large trucks and SUVs with a big towing capacity, so BEVs may not be feasible.

“For example, in Brazil, biofuels have been utilized and has already been commercialized,” said Masahiko Maeda, Toyota’s chief technology officer. “So [to be] carbon-neutral, we need to look at the energy situation of each region.”

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