While hybrids and electric vehicles (EVs) are the flavour of the moment throughout the auto industry, many experts consider them just transitional technologies as we collectively search for ways to wean the world off non-renewable resources. The holy grail, to some, is the Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV).
Dr. Sae Hoon Kim, a senior research engineer at Hyundai’s environmental research and development centre here, says there is no silver bullet that will solve our future transportation needs.
He is working on a wide range of alternatives, including pure electric vehicles, hybrids, plug-ins, bio-fuels and low-CO2-emmitting gasoline engines – but admits his true passion is the hydrogen-powered FCEV.
Future vehicles will require a portfolio of powertrains to meet the needs of a mobile world, Kim says.
Pure electric vehicles, for example, work well in smaller vehicles and where a limited driving range is not an issue, such as daily commutes to work. Where larger vehicles are required, however, or when greater distances are involved, EVs aren’t the answer. But hydrogen fuel cell power is a viable alternative in such situations.
Hyundai is on schedule to put 100 FCEVs on the street this year. They are based on the Tuscon compact SUV and feature the third generation of a fuel-cell system Kim has been working on since 1998.
Initially, an 80-kW hydrogen fuel-cell system developed by UTC Power was installed in a Tuscon, but when Hyundai opened a new research and development facility in Mabuk in 2006, the team was able to develop its own fuel- cell system. A year later, a 100-kW Hyundai cell was installed in a Tuscon – dubbed the FCEV-II – and a 200-kW system (a pair of cell stacks) was developed to power a transit bus.
The FCEV-II had a 382-km driving range, could accelerate to 100 km/h in 12.0 seconds and had a maximum speed of 155 km/h.
The latest-generation Tuscon FCEV, driven by a new alternating-current motor, has a top speed of 160 km/h and a range of 650 km. It also uses a 21-kw lithium-polymer battery, rather than the more costly super capacitors used in the 2007 model.
I had an opportunity to briefly drive the Tuscon FCEV-II on a test track and its performance was promising. Initial acceleration was strong and linear and reaching a brisk cruising speed seemed to be no problem.
The only blip seemed to be acceleration for passing – with a planetary gearset CVT rather than a multi-speed transmission, stepping on the accelerator to simulate an overtaking maneuver felt more like stomping on a sponge.
Globally, there is considerably interest in FCEVs. Testing and development is currently being done in several countries, including Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Germany and Denmark. In one test in Sweden in May, a Tuscon FCEV was driven 341 kilometres in 3.7 hours – and still had hydrogen in its storage tank at the end of the run.
Hyundai plans to build a pilot or pre-production run of 2,000 vehicles between 2012 and 2014. The target for full commercial production is 2015 and beyond, with an initial capacity set at 10,000 FCEVs annually.
Range anxiety haunts some consumers contemplating an electric vehicle – and fuel cell vehicles have issues, too. Driving around with a tank of hydrogen in the trunk can make some folks wary, but Kim showed videos of tests his team conducted that should help allay those fears.
A Tuscon FCEV was subjected to crash tests, including front, side and rear impacts, plus a rear 70%-offset crash at 80 km/h. The vehicle – and its hydrogen storage system – survived with no leaks.
Another Tuscon was set ablaze to test the stability of the hydrogen system. The tank survived 40 minutes of intense flame before exploding, while its pressure relief device activated itself after 22 minutes in the fire.
A comparison test of a hydrogen tank and a propane tank also demonstrated the integrity of the Tuscon’s storage system, with the propane cylinder exploding long before the hydrogen tank succumbed.
Cold weather starting issues, although not deadly, are still a matter of concern with hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. However, Hyundai says it is finding solutions to this issue, noting its system has been proven to start at minus-25 degrees C, following extensive testing in a cold chamber and in real-world conditions in Sweden.
A fleet of 32 Tuscon and Kia Sportage FCEVs has also been evaluated in a U.S. government testing program, accumulating a total of more than 835,000 km.
Infrastructure to support hydrogen-fuelled vehicles is a big roadblock to any shift to this power source in the near future. Hyundai says its own fuelling stations in Korea (it hopes to have 13 on stream by the end of this year) are using hydrogen produced from a chemical process – and supplies can service about six vehicles a day.
Kim says, however, the practical supply for hydrogen is from renewable energy sources – by using byproduct hydrogen, he says such supplies could easily sustain 500,000 FCEVs a year. "Developing the infrastructure is not that challenging in Korea," he says.
FCEVs have a lot going for them. For starters, the only emission is water. Also, electric vehicles require lengthy charging times, while hydrogen vehicles can be refuelled in three minutes and have a considerably longer range.
Still, Kim emphasizes that neither is the perfect solution – "there’s room for both systems in our future."