There's a motoring revolution quietly gaining momentum, and it's all to do with hydrogen.
Throughout the world, vehicle manufacturers are spending billions developing technology that can allow cars to run on hydrogen instead of fossil fuel, and to emit clean water from exhaust pipes instead of pollutants.
Significant progress is being made, with some manufacturers developing ways of running their cars' engines on hydrogen as a fuel, while others are going the fuel cell way - hydrogen is converted into electricity so the car can run as an electric vehicle.
It's all gathering speed. In recent weeks, a number of manufacturers, including General Motors, Toyota, Nissan, Mercedes- Benz and Honda, have said they will have product ready for commercial release within the next two years.
But all these motoring giants have just been beaten to the start line by that fast-growing upstart from South Korea, Hyundai Motor Company.
It has become the first in the world to begin commercial production of a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. It has set aside an area at its sprawling vehicle assembly plant in Ulsan, where it is taking standard ix35 SUVs that we can buy in New Zealand, and turning them into fuel cell electric vehicles or FCEVs.
What this means is that right now if you are a motorist in Europe, USA or South Korea, you can pop into your Hyundai dealership and order the ix35 that has an electric motor and uses hydrogen as its fuel.
Nobody has actually done that yet - and a primary reason is that it's not cheap. While no retail prices are officially available, it is likely it will be six to seven times more than a standard petrol or diesel-fuelled ix35.
But the big news is that it can happen.
Not yet in New Zealand mind you, because we haven't got any facilities to refuel a vehicle with hydrogen. But you can guarantee that it will happen, because now that one company has commercialised hydrogen automotive technology, the others will quickly follow suit, and hydrogen will become an increasingly viable transport mode - just as hybrid technology did almost two decades ago.
Key to this improving viability will be the number of hydrogen refuelling stations for customers to use. At present there are 223 of them around the world, including 80 in Europe, 72 in USA, 22 in Japan, and 13 in Korea.
This number is rapidly increasing. For example Germany alone expects to have 100 by next year and 400 by 2020. Norway, Sweden and Denmark are busy developing the Scandinavian Hydrogen Highway which will feature 27 stations, while Italy is establishing a similar "Highway" designed to connect the country in a hydrogen way to Germany and Scandinavia.
So even now, the Hyundai ix35 FCEV is entering a market scenario that is ready to accept it - even though one of the major problems it will immediately encounter is that most of the existing refuelling stations can only fill tanks to pressures of up to 250 bar, whereas the new Hyundai has tanks that need to be filled to 700 bar to achieve a range of almost 600 kilometres.
But that will change, said Hyundai executives at a briefing for a New Zealand media contingent in Korea last week. The new versions now being installed are all capable of pumping to the higher pressures, and the existing ones will be either upgraded or replaced.
The start to commercial production of the ix35 FCEV is the climax to 15 years of research and development by Hyundai. It all started in 1998, and the first hydrogen fuel cell vehicle to be tested was a Santa Fe in 2002, followed by a Tucson in 2007, and then the ix35 last year.
Each time the vehicles have featured fuel cell equipment that has got smaller and smaller.
At Hyundai's Environmental Technology Centre at Mabuk, an hour from Seoul, the early Tucson is on display next to a cut-out of the new ix35 to show just have much more compact the new componentry is - in 2007 there was no way the fuel cell stack and electric engine could fit under the vehicle's engine bay, but now with the ix35 it can.
Host at Mabuk was Dr Sae Hoon Kim, the general manager of Hyundai's fuel cell vehicle team 2.
"Our target was to make the electric engine and fuel stack the same size as a conventional engine so we could put it into a normal vehicle," he explained. "We've been able to achieve that with an SUV - now the challenge is to make the technology even more compact so it can be installed in many more Hyundai vehicles."
The main components in the ix35 FCEV are a hydrogen tank, battery, a stack of 400 ultra-thin fuel cells, and an electric motor.
When the hydrogen enters the fuel cell stack, it reacts with an inflow of air and breaks down into protons and electrons. The flow of electrons in the fuel cell provides the electricity, while the protons react with oxygen molecules from the air to generate heat and water.
The electricity generated by the fuel cell is first transmitted to an inverter which converts the direct current into alternating current, and then it is passed on to the electric motor.
This all happens in a totally silent way. At Mabuk the New Zealand media were invited to drive the new ix35, and as we approached the vehicle it was making quite a noise - but it was the air conditioning system which Dr Kim promptly turned off, no doubt figuring it would be worth the Kiwis sweating for a time in the Korean heat in the interests of a totally silent drive.
And it is silent, too. As we drove around a closed circuit within the technology centre's grounds, the only noise was tyre roar. Probably the only other noise would have been the drip-drip sound of the quite substantial amount of water that emerged through the exhaust system as the Hyundai rolled along.
Performance is very good. Whereas a standard 2.0-litre petrol ix35 offers 122 kilowatts of power and 197 newton metres of torque, the FCEV version features 100kW of power and 300Nm of instantly available torque.
This means that it is substantially faster than a standard ix35 from a standing start, and it is only as momentum increases that the petrol model begins to be the superior performer.
But only just - while the petrol model's time to 100kmh is 10.6 seconds, the hydrogen-fuelled version takes 12.5 seconds, and much of that extra time can be put down to the fact that the FCEV is 250kg heavier than a standard ix35.
But here's the thing. While the petrol version can travel 12.5 kilometres on a litre of fuel, the fuel cell model covers 27.8 kilometres on an equivalent amount of hydrogen. And adding to that environmental equation is the fact that only water comes out the exhaust pipe.
Of course there is a long way to yet go before hydrogen fuel cell electric cars can become truly acceptable as transport for the masses - the current $200,000-plus price is obviously a major hurdle - but you can guarantee that as the technology develops and more manufacturers introduce their versions, the price will amortise down.
Remember that's what happened with hybrid cars, and it is what is happening now with the extended-range electric cars that are now moving on to new vehicle markets around the world, including New Zealand.
And now, at long last, it is the turn of the fuel cell car. Thanks to Hyundai starting the ball rolling with commercialisation of its product, the future of hydrogen power is now.
THE KEY PARTS Hydrogen Storage System
At the rear of the Hyundai ix35 FCEV are two high-pressure hydrogen tanks plus ancilliary equipment including solenoid valving, high pressure regulator and overflow control valve for maximum safety safety. The tanks are strong enough to store the hydrogen at 700 bar - that's about 10,000 psi - which gives the Hyundai its operating range of close to 600km.
High Voltage Battery
A lightweight and compact lithium polymer battery is located under the floor about underneath the front seats, and its job is to temporarily store a portion of the electricity generated by the fuel cell stack. This electricity is then used to give the ix35 extra boost during that small amount of time at the start of acceleration when the fuel cell stack begins to produce its power.
Fuel Cell Stack
This is located in the engine compartment. Hydrogen and oxygen combine in the fuel cell stack to produce the electricity that powers the vehicle. Water is the only byproduct of this reaction - and people have actually drunk it - which makes the ix35 FCEV a truly zero- emissions car.
The inverter converts high voltage direct current from the fuel cell stack into alternating current, which is then used to operate the electric motor. It also controls the rotating speed and torque of the motor.
Electric Drive Motor and Reducer
The electric drive motor is the powertrain that connects the motor with the wheels and converts electric energy supplied through the inverter into mechanical torque. When the vehicle decelerates, the motor also converts the torque into electricity which is then stored in the battery. The reducer, which essentially plays the role of a gearbox, amplifies torque by adjusting the rotational speed of the motor, allowing for more efficient operation of the Hyundai on different terrains.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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