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Exclusive: Hyundai starts Australia’s hydrogen race

Chicken and egg: Hyundai has solved the ancient paradox by bringing a hydrogen-powered ix35 and its own refuelling station to Australia at the same time.

Hyundai pioneers hydrogen era in Australia with ix35 Fuel Cell, refuelling station

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Hyundai logo9 Dec 2014

HYUNDAI has taken the first significant step on the long road towards emissions-free motoring in Australia, importing an ix35 Fuel Cell for comprehensive testing and establishing the nation’s only hydrogen refuelling station at its Sydney headquarters.

In an exclusive interview with GoAuto, Hyundai Motor Co Australia (HMCA) product planning manager Scott Nargar revealed that the company was also well down the track to producing its own hydrogen at its Macquarie Park headquarters and is preparing to introduce more fuel cell vehicles.

These are all significant milestones in a country which is said to be at least a decade behind others such as the United States, Japan and Europe in terms of hydrogen-fuelled motoring, widely considered a key plank in reducing the global auto industry’s dependence on oil and reducing harm to the environment.

The ix35 Fuel Cell is billed as the world’s first series-production fuel cell electric vehicle and, while it has been in service as a demonstrator for politicians and other opinion leaders and industry officials over the past few months, HMCA now has the means to refuel the vehicle and keep it on as a permanent test and demonstration vehicle that can push the hydrogen cause in Australia like no other vehicle before it.

“This is just the beginning,” said Mr Nargar, who believes Australia could quickly close the gap to other countries, given sufficient support.

“When you are talking to people within the government, industry and business, it’s frustrating not having physically something on the ground to show them.

“Until someone can sit in the vehicle or use the refueller, it’s hard to get the message across.

“Australia has waited long enough and we need to start telling the story now and that’s what Hyundai is about. We are telling the story on behalf of all manufacturers.

“We see ourselves as responsible for building a strong foundation so that other manufacturers can come in and join us and work hard to change the future.”

The absence of a motor vehicle refuelling infrastructure is often cited by car-makers, including Toyota and Honda, as the obvious roadblock in the quest to bringing their latest hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to Australia.

However, Mr Nargar said HMCA had decided to take it upon itself to solve the problem, for a small number of demonstrator vehicles at least, and start a process that will hopefully lead to government backing and more refuelling stations coming on stream.

“We see our job here as being an advocate for the technology,” he said. “How do we start the conversation and get the right people in Europe speaking to the right people in Australia, and how do we get our government involved in the same way the European government is involved?“Without a critical mass of vehicles it’s hard to justify the investment in infrastructure, and it’s all about working together for a brighter future for us all.

“In the early stages in California and Europe the people who are building these stations aren’t making money but the structure is being supplemented by government.”

Mr Nargar said hydrogen was easy to acquire in Australia and that several companies already produced the gas.

“The gas is used in a number of applications and it’s shipped across the country by a number of companies – getting the gas is no problem,” he said.

“Australia has an advantage because we have used gaseous fuels for years so it’s not a big leap.”

That abundant supply is produced industrially in a process known as steam reforming and will initially provide the hydrogen for Hyundai’s fuel cell vehicle filling station. But HMCA intends to soon produce the gas itself.

“We are going to do it the green way. Early next year we will have our solar array finished and, working with an Australian company, producing hydrogen on-site,” said Mr Nargar.

“We will be able to produce our own fuel from water and solar power, and the only emission from the vehicle is water vapour.”

Establishing more filling stations will require the carefully co-ordinated participation of government, industry and other car-makers, but Mr Nargar used California and Germany as examples of how it can be done.

“The government investment in infrastructure overseas is mind-boggling because they know it’s the future, they know this is the direction it’s going to head and in Europe we’re talking a figure of about $17 billion over the next six years,” he said.

“We drove a vehicle 1000km across Germany using their refuelling infrastructure that’s in place, meeting with the government in France talking about their plans and the rollout of their ‘Hydrogen Highway’ and then meeting with infrastructure partners in the UK.

“It’s amazing that the world is really taking hold of this technology and moving forward in a big way.”

Hyundai says Australia could be as much as a decade behind in the race to functioning infrastructure, but a concerted effort and commitment from government could quickly close the gap.

“I’d say we are about 10 years behind,” said Mr Nargar. “We can close the gap rapidly though because a lot of that 10 years has been the refinement of the technology for the fuelling of the vehicles, so we can pick up very quickly.

“We have a great resource in the sun and water and we are a pretty techy country. We don’t like to sit back and watch the rest of the world leap ahead of us.

“We were once a leader in solar power but unfortunately all that technology has been exported offshore now.”

As with other successful hydrogen strategies, government involvement is crucial, and Mr Nargar explained the early stages of infrastructure are the hardest and it would be impossible without full government backing.

Mr Nargar said HMCA had received a positive response from Australian government representatives, including industry minister Ian Macfarlane, but there is clearly a long road still to travel.

“There are a couple of government finance agencies talking to different companies,” he said. “We’ve also been talking to a number of MPs and ministers that are very aware of this program.

“Going by our conversations particularly in the last couple of months I am very confident that departments within the government are reacting in a very positive manner towards this.”

Setting up the refuelling stations will be a complex process with private investors, existing fuel retailers, government support and local industry all required to establish the network. But Mr Nargar says the next one is likely to be another Hyundai station.

“We have been working very hard to get some of the big European and American electrolyser companies talking with Australian companies and so far I have been really encouraged by the progress they have made,” he said.

“Something we are mindful of is how do we generate jobs in Australia for this? One or two overseas manufacturers are interested in manufacturing these refuellers here and that was part of our discussion with minister Macfarlane in Canberra recently.

“The second one will probably be Hyundai again. We are investing in the future and we are doing this to make it easier for the other manufacturers to get their cars here. If Toyota had a refueller I would be over there filling up our car.

“There are 20 major infrastructure manufacturers around the world and we are talking to all of them.

“Unlike EV (electric vehicle) technology, every manufacturer is using the same protocol. We are using the same refuelling nozzle, the same pressures, the same communication links and we are all talking the same language.”

HMCA public relations general manager Bill Thomas told GoAuto that linking the main city centres and the Australian capital with a hydrogen refuelling network would be a big win without prohibitive cost.

“The other idea we’ve had is to push for something we like to call ‘The Hume by Hydrogen’,” he said. “We think that if we linked the two major cities via the capital that would be a great way to start an infrastructure development program.

“If we did full 700 bar stations that are making their own hydrogen, a decent level, it’s probably about $2 million per unit.

“If you had one in Canberra, Melbourne, Sydney and one in Albury, you’re looking at about $10m.

“The aim is to get some kind of government support for infrastructure.”

With all the right pieces in place Mr Nargar sees a significant presence of hydrogen-powered vehicles on our roads within the next five years.

However, he stressed that hydrogen power does not stop with transport.

“Cars are just one part of the puzzle – this is really the future of powering the planet and it’s time we started the conversation now,” he said.

“This is not just a project looking at how to make cleaner cars, it’s about how we look to the future of Australia’s road transport and secure our fuel supplies.”

Hyundai will be officially launching the new fuel station in February next year and more ix35 Fuel Cell cars will be arriving on Australian turf for further planned trials.

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