Hyundai ix35: This hydrogen power's a blast

By Liz Dobson

Fuel cell car for the mass market is finally on its way

Hyundai ix45 hydrogen fuel cell SUV. Photo / Supplied
Hyundai ix45 hydrogen fuel cell SUV. Photo / Supplied

An engineer at a Hyundai Motors development centre just out of Seoul doesn't like to go home - not because of his domestic life but because he can't take with him an exclusive vehicle just launched by the company.

During the week he tests a Hyundai ix35 fuel cell SUV, the world's first mass production hydrogen vehicle.

"The engineer doesn't like driving any other car and doesn't like going home at weekends because he likes the silence of the hydrogen car," said Dr Sae Hoon Kim.

As principal engineer of fuel cell vehicles at the Mabuk Research and Development centre, just out of Seoul, Dr Kim has worked for Hyundai for the past 10 years refining the product that was first developed by the company in 1997.

By 2000, the first fuel cell vehicle was produced. Based on the Santa Fe SUV, the price of that prototype vehicle was US$1 million. Thirteen years later you'd pay about NZ$250,000 for an ix35 fuel cell SUV, though Hyundai won't officially confirm the price.

Already in use as trial fleet vehicles in Copenhagen, Brussels, London and Seoul, Hyundai plans to have 1000 of the ix35 fuel cell vehicles available by 2015, with plans for a total of 10,000 in the following years.

Car manufacturers around the world are looking for vehicles that run on alternative fuels. Toyota is famous for its hybrids, while GM/Holden, Nissan and Mitsubishi are focusing on electric vehicles.

For a while Hyundai covered both bases, producing a hybrid Sonata (known as i45 in New Zealand) and ix20 EV. But due to "range anxiety" - where drivers were worried their electric vehicle would run out of power far away from any charging stations - Hyundai isn't pushing for plug-ins.

"The market isn't ready for plug-in EVs," said Hyundai's vice-president of global communications, Frank Ahrens. "We don't think the volume is there yet."

So now the company is looking at hydrogen as a fuel source, not only for its abundance but also for its zero carbon content - an important factor as the EU demands lower and lower emissions from car manufacturers.

Hyundai isn't the only car manufacturer to produce a hydrogen vehicle. Daimler looks set to have one in production by 2015 while BMW manufactured 100 limited edition Hydrogen 7 sedans that also had a petrol engine.

As one of a few journalists outside of Europe to drive one, Driven was in Korea as part of Hyundai's publicity plan for the hydrogen vehicle.

"When people think hybrids they think Toyota, so when people think hydrogen, we want them to think Hyundai," said Ahrens.

The vehicle's range is 594km with a top speed of 160km/h. It takes only three minutes to fill with hydrogen as opposed to 30 minutes at the minimum for EVs.

It was tested over four million kms including sub-zero temperatures and snow in Sweden.

Apart from overcoming freezing weather, the ix35 had to deal with hydrogen safety with the inclusion of four sensors that detect collision and leakage as well as safety valves that block or ventilate hydrogen in an emergence situation, while the hydrogen tanks have to be certified for mass production.

What isn't ready for mass production is fuel for the vehicle, with only 165 official hydrogen fuelling stations in the world (see box at right).

So, how does the ix35 fuel cell SUV work?

In simple terms (especially as I failed School Certificate science), the hydrogen from two tanks located at the rear of the vehicle interacts with oxygen in a platinum-line fuel cell stack under the bonnet, producing electricity which powers the motor.

The result is not only silent motoring but the only byproduct is water from the exhaust - and that's clean water. Just ask an Aussie journo. He demanded he try the water from a prototype version a couple of years ago so a glass was placed under the exhaust and on camera, he drank the byproduct. Luckily I had a bottle of water on hand ...

Apart from the silence, the most immediate impression of the fuel cell car is the torque.

Dr Kim said that although from 0-100km/h the hydrogen ix35 would take 12.5 seconds compared with 10.6 seconds in a petrol ix35, "from zero to 60km/h the hydrogen would win".

A simple test was to come to a complete stop then hit the accelerator. The vehicle took off like a sports car - much to the alarm of the engineer seated beside me.

It was so much fun that I did the stop-zoom start throughout my drive.

This vehicle will impress in its trial cities around the world. It's at the fore at 50km/h driving.

And will we be able to see it around New Zealand cities? Well, yes, you could buy one from Hyundai NZ - but you would need your own hydrogen fuelling station, says its boss Andy Sinclair.


Pipe dreams

Hyundai ix45 fuel cell SUV. Photo / Liz Dobson
Hyundai ix45 fuel cell SUV. Photo / Liz Dobson

To paraphrase the famous line from Kevin Costner's film Field of Dreams, Hyundai Motors is hoping that ''if we build it, they will come ...'' with its hydrogen fuelling stations.

There are 80 hydrogen fuelling stations in the European Union, 13 in Korea, and 72 in the US - and those are the official ones.

Unofficially, hydrogen is a byproduct at many chemical companies in South Korea so
''they all have hydrogen pipes'', said Dr Sae Hoon Kim, head engineer of the fuel cell
vehicle at Hyundai's Mabuk centre.

While fuelling stations are ''quite compact'', Dr Kim said there still needs to be the
worldwide infrastructure. ''Without fuelling stations you can't have development.''

By 2015, there will be 43 stations in South Korea and more in the US.

New Zealand has no fuelling stations.

- NZ Herald

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