Hyundai is one of a small handful of automakers currently marketing a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle. But the South Korean carmaker sees much broader applications for the zero-emission technology and highlighted where that’s taking it during a presentation at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Monday.
Hyundai was an early pioneer exploring the use of fuel-cell technology and currently offers one of the few hydrogen-powered vehicles available in the U.S. market, the little Nexo sport-utility vehicle. But the South Korean carmaker sees plenty of future opportunities for using the lightweight gas through its appropriately named HTWO subsidiary which it spotlighted at CES 2024.
Aiming to address one of the biggest challenges to developing what some have dubbed “the hydrogen economy,” Hyundai announced plans to launch a new production system that will provide 3 million metric tonnes of the gas by 2035.
Like the rest of the industry, Hyundai is rolling out an array of all-electric vehicles, including the Ioniq 6 sedan that was a finalist for North American Car of the Year. But its “sustainability roadmap calls for curbing carbon dioxide emissions with a mix of powertrain technologies, including fuel-cell products like the Nexo. The automaker claims to now have the highest global market share for hydrogen-powered vehicles.
It intends to bring additional vehicles to the retail market, but also sees commercial applications, including the heavy-duty trucks it’s piloting at California’s busy shipping ports — some of the biggest sources of pollution in places like Los Angeles and San Francisco. Through the HTWO subsidiary launched in 2020, Hyundai also is developing fuel-cell-powered boat and rail applications, and even potential ways to use the lightweight gas for cleaner air travel.
“Clean hydrogen should be for everyone, powering everything, and available everywhere,” said Jay Chang, president and CEO of Hyundai Motor Co.
Everywhere and nowhere
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and is the source of the sun’s power. But on Planet Earth, it is only readily found in combination with other elements, whether water — made up of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen — or in hydrocarbon fuels like petroleum.
The challenge is to come up with abundant, clean and affordable sources of the gas and then distribute it to where it’s needed.
The Korean company is working on several means to achieve that goal, including a new megawatt-scale polymer electrolyte membrane, or PEM, electrolyzer. That technology uses electricity — preferably derived from renewables such as solar or wind — to break water into its component elements. Electrolyzers have been used for decades, but Chang Hwan Kim, senior vice president and head of Hydrogen Fuel Cell and Battery Development for Hyundai, believes this new system eventually will be cheaper and more efficient than existing hydrogen production methods.
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Biden administration buys in
Hyundai isn’t the only transportation company betting on hydrogen. Toyota and Honda are also producing vehicles using the gas, such as the Toyota Mirai. And a number of startups are entering the field, including Phoenix-based Nikola which is starting to deliver the first of its fuel-cell vehicles to U.S. customers. For now, it is focusing on Class 8 semi tractors.
There are some skeptics who question whether fuel-cell technology really can be part of the zero-emissions solution. Tesla CEO Elon Musk is fond of dissing them as “fool cells.”
But the Biden administration is buying in, last June publishing the National Clean Hydrogen Strategy and Roadmap — and dedicating funding from its infrastructure bill to fund accelerated production, delivery and storage. Last month, at COP28, meanwhile, the International Hydrogen Trade Forum and the Hydrogen Council launched several initiatives to put hydrogen on the global radar as a clean-fuel solution.