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Hyundai ready for fuel cell future

Future affordability: Hyundai hopes to reduce the price gap between fuel cell and petrol cars by 2020.

Hybrid and electric cars just a test bed for hydrogen fuel cell future, says Hyundai

Hyundai logo9 Nov 2010

HYBRID and electric vehicles are merely loss-making speed bumps on the road to a world of hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) that produce no CO2 and do not rely on fossil fuels, says Hyundai.

The world’s fifth-largest car-maker last week restated its commitment to releasing its first fuel cell vehicle in 2012 – three years ahead of Toyota and General Motors, which both claim to be on track to begin commercial production of an FCEV by 2015.

But South Korea’s biggest automotive company says hybrids like its own i45-based Sonata Hybrid, which goes on sale in North America within weeks, are unlikely ever to be available to Australians in right-hand drive form because they remain unprofitable.

 center imageLeft: Hyundai ix35 FCEV. Below: Kia Borrego FCEV.

Speaking to Australian journalists last week in Seoul, Hyundai Motor Company president and CEO Steve S Yang said Hyundai will continue to build petrol-electric models like the Sonata Hybrid, mild hybrids like the Elantra LPI Hybrid and all-electric vehicles like the i10-based BlueOn city car, but only in order to develop the technology required to mass-produce FCEVs.

GM believes that by 2025, fuel cell cars will cost the same as equivalent hybrid or plug-in hybrid vehicles, and that infrastructure will have improved to the point where hydrogen refuelling stations will be commonplace globally – starting with hydrogen-advanced regions such as Korea, Japan, Germany, Norway and California.

But Hyundai, which has built FCEVs for several years based on its Tucson compact soft-roader (and the related Kia Sportage), and will build a further 100 fuel-cell hydrogen vehicles next year based on the new model (known as ix35 in Australia), suggests both scenarios could happen sooner.

“We have continued to develop fuel cell (vehicles) so we are now one of the leaders,” said Mr Yang. “We (will) never give up because our chairman has ordered us (to develop FCEVs).

“By next year we will build (another) 100 FCVs. The next step is we have to prove to society (the merits of FCEVs) to gain their acceptance.

“By 2020, we think we can reduce the price gap between fuel cell cars and gasoline (petrol) cars,” said Mr Yang, who described hybrids and EVs as a kind of necessary evil in the development of FCEVs.

“Of course, we need EVs and we need hybrids but these are an intermediate step for fuel cell vehicles. The point of building the EVs is to get proven technology for fuel cell (vehicles).”

Hyundai’s global chief said components from EVs like the BlueOn were already being incorporated in the development of mass-production FCEVs.

“The car’s electrical systems, motors and batteries will eventually be used to drive hydrogen-powered vehicles that emit only water vapour,” he said. “Lithium-polymer batteries will be charged by hydrogen generators. The stored voltage will then drive an electric motor.”

As well as compact SUVs, Hyundai-Kia also has larger FCEVs in development, such as the Kia Borrego SUV.

The Borrego FCEV was first shown at the LA auto show two years ago and included a 450-volt supercapacitor instead of lithium-polymer batteries as used in the Sportage/Tucson/ix35 FCEVs. This handed the big SUV more power, stronger acceleration and, with a larger 202-litre hydrogen tank, an impressive driving range of 685km.

Hyundai acknowledges the major hurdle to mass-market hydrogen vehicles is fuel delivery infrastructure, but says large fleets of FCVs – which would not require recharging and offer a driving range similar to fossil-fuelled vehicles – could eventually be powered at relatively low cost in many countries by vast untapped reserves of hydrogen that is currently being wasted as bi-products from chemical and steel plants.

“Fuel cell (vehicles) can go 600km – the problem is hydrogen availability,” said the president of Hyundai-Kia Motors’ R&D division, Woong-chul Yang.

“(But) in Korea hydrogen is available at low prices. Hydrogen comes as a bi-product from chemical and steel factories and is used unwisely now. If we collect this bi-product we can supply 400,000 cars.

“Hydrogen is already available so we can have them now. We are working with factories in the south (of Korea, to develop hydrogen capture technology),” said Dr Yang, who added that although (domestic) recharging infrastructure already exists globally for battery electric vehicles (BEVs), they continue to offer a short driving range and long recharge times.

“Sales of EVs is totally dependent on government policies and subsidies,” he said. “The GM Volt, for example, costs $US41,000 ($A40,500). Even including the government subsidy of $US7000, it costs $US34,000, which is a price that’s similar to the luxury cars.

“The other problem with the EVs is the short distance of travel and you need about seven hours for recharge.”

Dr Yang said that because it does not require a transmission – just a motor and a battery – EV technology is far simpler than either hybrid or fuel cell technology. But he pointed out that only the latter was a zero-emissions solution and that hydrogen cars retain the functionality of current petrol/diesel vehicles and, unlike BEVs, did not require customers to change their driving behaviour.

While Mitsubishi, Nissan and Renault have invested heavily in BEVs, Hyundai plans to produce a limited run of 500 FCEVs for field trials in specific markets, before full-scale production of up to 10,000 units per annum takes place in 2015.

The first markets to receive them are likely to be South Korea and North America, and Dr Yang said that Hyundai hopes that by 2020 a “reasonable percentage” of its new model range would be powered by hydrogen.

Dr Yang also ruled out right-hand drive versions of the US market’s Sonata Hybrid and the Korean market’s Elantra LPI on the basis of profitability. Fuelled by LPG, the latter will continue to be built for Korea alongside the new Elantra sedan, which is likely to be dubbed the i35 when it goes on sale here by mid-2011.

“We are not gaining a lot of profit out of hybrid … We are losing money,” he said. “But in the big picture it (hybrid technology) sells a lot of other products.”

Dr Yang said Hyundai plans to sell the Sonata Hybrid’s proprietary hybrid drive system to other car-makers in order to increase its economy of scale and therefore reduce costs.

“Our hope is that because our system is a lot simpler than others it has cost advantages and other companies will adopt our system,” he said. “A certain company is already sharing a lot of interest.”

Hyundai-Kia’s global R&D chief declined to reveal which car-maker was most likely to employ its hybrid drive system first, but confirmed it will not be Toyota.

Toyota, which is now trialling a plug-in version of its iconic Prius hybrid, plans to have an affordable fuel-cell vehicle on US roads by 2015, while Mercedes-Benz is already trialling a B-class FCEV and Volvo has committed to producing an FCEV – possibly with a radical new powertrain that does not rely on a hydrogen refuelling infrastructure – by 2012.

While BMW and Mazda pioneered the use of hydrogen as a fuel in a conventional internal combustion engine (rotary, in Mazda’s case), Honda’s limited-production FCX Clarity was among the first to employ a fuel cell stack that converts hydrogen into electricity to power an electric motor, making it one of the world’s first production FCEVs.

As GoAuto has reported, GM has predicted that cost reductions from increased production volumes and advances in materials will significantly drop the manufacturing cost of hydrogen-powered fuel cells. It expects that by 2020 the amount of expensive platinum required in the powertrain of an FCEV like its own Equinox SUV will be reduced from about 80 grams to 2g – about the same amount that is found in a conventional catalytic converter.

Hyundai last week officially handed over 129 vehicles for official use at the G20 Seoul Summit over November 10-11, ranging from its new Equus limousine to the BlueOn, which it claims is the world’s first high-speed EV.

Apart from the i10-based BEV, Hyundai will also provide summit staff with a fleet of BEV and FCEV buses. The company unveiled its second-generation FCEV bus at last year’s Seoul motor show – three years after introducing its first fuel cell bus at the 2006 FIFA World Cup.

Based on the latest Low Floor Aero City bus platform, Hyundai’s latest FCEV bus comprises three 100kW permanent magnet synchronous motors arranged in parallel to provide a total of 300kW (up from the previous model’s single 240kW motor), lifting to speed by 33 per cent to 100km/h.

Compressed hydrogen fuel is stored in the roof of the 26-seat bus in six cylinders pressurised to 350 bar (5000 psi), providing the bus with an operating range of 360km in city mode. The FCEV buses – which comprise more efficient super-capacitors and a 200kW fuel cell power plant (up from 160kW) – are replenished by a hydrogen refuelling station at either end of their route.

Under its ‘Blue Drive’ sustainable mobility program, Hyundai also continues to develop vehicles that can run on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), compressed natural gas (CNG) and bio-fuels including E85 ethanol, as well as diesel and petrol.

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