Fuel cells the

future of motoring

Hyundai ix35 FCEV, side
Hyundai ix35 FCEV, refuelling
Dr Saehoon Kim, Kia head of fuel cell vehicle research
Fuel cell graphic

THE fuel cell is the only technology which will provide a sustainable automotive industry in the long run, according to the head of research for Kia Motors Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle team, Dr Saehoon Kim.

The Korean manufacturer is the country's oldest vehicle maker and is pouring millions of pounds into research to develop the models of the future, notably using its advanced fuel cell - first invented in 1839 by a Swansea-born scientist - in order to reduce cost and make it affordable for motorists.

Dr Kim says the automotive industry is facing a real struggle to cut exhaust emissions to levels demanded by politicians and governments around the world and it's going to become progressively harder to meet legislation.

He said it is Kia's view that current battery technology will be unable to meet the needs of motorists in future when legislation will virtually outlaw the internal combustion engine.

"Batteries have an issue over their range and recharging," said Dr Kim. "This will make them unsuitable for anything other than comparatively short distances.

"But a fuel cell electric vehicle will have a range and performance broadly similar to petrol and diesel engines of today and its refuelling will take about the same time as we are used to now."

Dr Kim was speaking during a visit to Kia's advanced engineering centre in Mabuk near Seoul where he heads hundreds of engineers looking at future powertrains, technologies and systems and who work with car designers shaping the models of the future for the company.

"The real advances for the FCEV will be in trucks and buses using them because they have higher demands on load and distance which cannot be matched by big-battery power and as the lessons and costs of developing these feeds into the industry it will become more affordable for the cars of tomorrow."

He went on: "That's why we are getting lots of requests from logistics companies to provide trucks with fuel cells."

Fuel cells work by combining hydrogen with oxygen to generate electricity and the only waste product is water, making the system entirely emission free.

Hydrogen is the most plentiful substance in the universe and can be found in abundance, which will make it much cheaper than generating electricity alone to power cars, trains, boats or through rival fossil fuels.

Importantly, it is not subject to any supply issues due to political or production interests in the way of oil, gas or coal products.

Dr Kim is confident that the known weakness of FCEVs, the contamination or "furring up" of cell plates over comparatively short periods of typically four years will be overcome very soon.

This issue currently means fuel cell efficiency gradually degrades and involves a costly replacement but he sees a time coming when the contamination will be addressed and a replacement cell stack is fitted in a routine major service, much like vehicles undergo now, and at a reasonable cost.

Another issue of the water system freezing in cold weather and needing thawing out is being addressed and he believes is very close to being solved for drivers in more extreme locations.

The Kia team, which operates in conjuction with engineers from sister company Hyundai, has run tests to get FCEVs starting within 30 seconds in -30C temperature and instantly at -10C.

Dr Kim said all the progress being made in research centres such as Kia's depended on a comprehensive infrastructure to deliver hydrogen to its users and he believes this will be built initially around the demands of long distance operators such as fleets.

The rise in numbers of plug-in electric vehicles and pure electric vehicles over the coming years will put increased demands on providers to install charging points at homes, businesses, filling stations, shopping centres and other locations.

The combined amount of electricity required will in turn put incredible pressure on governments to build nuclear power plants to generate what is needed and the cost and political will is not assured and raises the issue of physical and national security.

"When we first developed a FCEV towards the end of the last century we described it as the million dollar car because of the costly components, but these have over time come down and I think we are much closer to calling the next models the $100,000 cars, and who knows what figure it will fall to in the future?"

That first fuel cell model developed by the team was a Hyundai Santa Fe which led to the Tucson FCEV and then the ix35 FCEV which rolled off the Ulsan, South Korea line in 2013 but produced in limited numbers because of the cost and small market.

"We are certainly moving closer to the price of today's better ICE cars and looking ahead I believe a future FCEV will be cheaper than a pure battery car," said Dr Kim, adding that he believed hydrogen will be the fuel source of the future.

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