Electric is not the answer

Electric is not the answer

The world isn’t ready for electric cars. Well, that’s what Korean automaker Hyundai believes …

Perhaps I should apologise. For the second consecutive issue of SHEQ MANAGEMENT, I am writing about the future of the automotive industry. I could say that this is because I am a petrolhead. Of course I cannot make this statement, as editor of the country’s leading green magazine … that would be tantamount to the editor of Vegan’s Weekly admitting that he really adores a good steak.

But I do love cars. And I do believe that they have an enormous influence on our lives. Based on those two factors, I am going to write about them – yet again. Please indulge me …

Regular readers will recall that I wrote about electric cars in the last issue of SHEQ MANAGEMENT – because they are making their silent entrance into our country. Some people believe that they are the way of the future. The powers that be at Nissan are certainly upbeat about prospects for electric cars. They should be: some 50 000 LEAF models have been sold globally.

The vehicle has hit the 10 000 sales milestone in Europe, and Nissan Europe director of electric vehicles, Jean-Pierre Diernaz, reveals that over 1 000 LEAF models were sold in March this year, while it was the second best selling car overall in Norway in April. “We are seeing a shift in attitudes to electric mobility, with more people buying electric cars and the infrastructure developing at an ever increasing rate,” he remarks.

ELECTRIC CARS GET THUMBS DOWN

That’s all very well. But, speak to Frank Ahrens, vice president, global corporate communications at Hyundai Motor Company, and he paints a completely different picture. “Quite frankly, we don’t think that the market is ready for an electric car yet – because electric cars are still bound by limited range and long charging times, giving them limited appeal,” he tells SHEQ MANAGEMENT.

I can hear exactly what the pessimists are saying: Ahrens is making this statement because Hyundai doesn’t have the technology to produce an electric car. Wrong. The company developed Korea’s first high-speed electric car back in 2010. Based on Hyundai’s small hatchback, the i10, the BlueOn electric vehicle (EV) is equipped with an electric motor powered by a 16.4 kWh LiPoly (lithium-ion polymer) battery that offers numerous advantages over other battery types, such as nickel-metal hydride batteries (NiMH), including delivery of the same power with 30 percent less weight and 40 percent less volume; boosting efficiency by 15 percent; and leaving more interior space for passengers.

The BlueOn has a top speed of 130 km/h, it scampers from zero to 100 km/h in 13,1 seconds, it can do 140 km on a single charge and the battery can be fully recharged within six hours – using either 220V household power or 380V industrial-strength power (with the latter, the battery is recharged to about 80 percent of its capacity within 25 minutes).

So yes, the company does have the technology to produce electric cars plus a whole bunch of other impressive stuff. But it reckons that the fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) is a far more practical solution – here and now. Based on this belief, it has come up with the ix35 FCEV, a hydrogen-powered car that only emits water.

The ix35 Fuel Cell is the result of 14 years and several hundred million euros of research by hundreds of engineers at Hyundai’s fuel cell R&D centre in Mabuk, Korea. The car has logged more than two million miles of road tests in real-world conditions in Europe, Korea and the United States.

Ahrens is very upbeat about prospects for the ix35 Fuel Cell. “It feels just like a normal car when you’re driving and it only takes three minutes to refuel!” he tells SHEQ MANAGEMENT.  “Furthermore, it has a range of 594 km, it accelerates from zero to 100 km/h in 12,5 seconds and it has a top speed of 160 km/h – so it’s really easy to live with on a daily basis.”

As I have already mentioned, Hyundai’s ix35 Fuel Cell is powered by hydrogen, which is stored in two tanks, located between the vehicle’s rear axles, with a total capacity of 5,64 kg. A fuel cell stack converts the hydrogen into electricity, which turns the vehicle’s 100 kW electric motor.

The actual vehicle looks just like a regular ix35 – but it has a slightly different radiator grille, bumper, fog lamps, instrument cluster and seven-inch GPS.

HYDROGEN: THE HOLY GRAIL?

But is hydrogen really the Holy Grail when it comes to powering cars? Like most things in life, it has its advantages and disadvantages. Storage is a major hassle: liquid hydrogen takes up four times the volume of liquid petrol – so it needs four times the storage space (a challenge for refuelling stations and, to a lesser degree, cars). Furthermore, it’s highly flammable and explosive (but, then again, so is petrol) and it’s tricky to produce. Furthermore, it means the use of fuel cells which, in turn, necessitates the use of catalysts, which normally require platinum (which costs a bomb). On this note, Hyundai is now using very thin sheets of stainless steel to produce fuel cells, and it has seen the potential for cost-effective mass production of these vehicles by reducing the fuel cell stack price by a sixth.

Electric is not the answer On the other hand, hydrogen has lots of pluses. Columbia University has reported that hydrogen fuel cells are twice as efficient as regular internal-combustion engines, such as those found in most modern vehicles. Also, it is the most abundant element in the universe, and it’s colourless, odourless and non-toxic.

Based on these – and many other – benefits, Hyundai plans to build 1 000 ix35 Fuel Cell vehicles by 2015 for lease to public and private fleets, primarily in Europe, where the European Union has established a hydrogen road map and initiated construction of hydrogen fuelling stations. The City of Copenhagen – which aims to become carbon-neutral by 2025 – has already taken delivery of 15 units.

Leading automakers in Europe and the United States are working towards establishing a massive network of hydrogen refuelling stations in order to prepare the market for mass production of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

After 2015, with lowered vehicle production costs and further developed hydrogen infrastructure, Hyundai will begin manufacturing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles for consumer retail sales.

This is all very impressive. But what’s even more remarkable is the fact that the company is already undertaking assembly line production of this green hydrogen guzzler. Ahrens is – quite justifiably – very proud of this fact. “We’re the first automotive manufacturer in the world to achieve this and we have a two-year head start over everyone else; the other manufacturers will only be ready in 2015. Remember the way that Toyota grabbed the attention with hybrids? We want to do that with fuel cells,” he tells SHEQ MANAGEMENT.

Well the company has certainly grabbed my attention …

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