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South Korea’s Hydrogen Dream With Hyundai Is A Smaller Mistake Than Fraud-Riddled Nuclear Buildout

Hyundai has convinced the South Korean government, if no other government, that hydrogen is a big part of the future. They’ll spend a bunch of money failing to realize that future.

It’s unclear why South Korea has fallen for the hydrogen nonsense, but the country has a history of governmental alignment with its megacorporations over both good and bad ideas. Hydrogen is one of the bad ones, for the most part. Hyundai will undoubtedly not lose money and South Korean citizens will subsidize the folly, but there is a potential silver lining.[1]

Hyundai fuel cell vehicle

Another example that springs to mind is nuclear generation. The government was cozily in bed with KEPCO over its buildout of nuclear plants in densely populated areas as its key domestic energy strategy. Many plants were quickly built, but it turned out they were built with substandard parts that were fraudulently certified. The President of South Korea and 99 others were charged, and the President is currently spending the rest of her life in jail, as are many others.[2]

The current President of South Korea has sensibly looked at the tens of millions of citizens surrounding the nuclear plants, the Fukushima disaster, and the incredibly cheap cost of wind and solar and is committed to decommissioning the nuclear plants and replacing them with renewables over the next 40 years or so.[3][4]

Hydrogen is probably a ripple effect from this. Hyundai got into fuel cells relatively early, and it has a cozy relationship with the government as one of the major chaebol, or mostly family-run conglomerates that turned a formerly agrarian country into a global industrial powerhouse.[5] The company was able to influence politicians to get into the hydrogen game with them, as occurred in Japan.

The problems it faces are legion, however. Hydrogen is the smallest, lightest, slipperiest molecule, it embrittles harder steels causing rapid failure, it can’t be piped through existing gas pipelines in more than trace amounts as a result, it takes three times the pumping energy of natural gas to pump at all, it must be massively compressed to be a mobile solution, and it has a round trip efficiency that’s around 40%.[6] Partly as a result of all of these challenges, there is virtually no consumer hydrogen refueling for light vehicles anywhere in the world, and where there is it sometimes doesn’t work very well.[7][8] Hydrogen refueling stations are also much more expensive than gas or electric fueling stations, costing about $2 million for a site compared to thousands for electricity. This means that hydrogen won’t be the fuel for freight trucking either, so that idea is also dead.

As a result, it’s dead in the water for road transportation uses, but that doesn’t mean zombies aren’t walking in the space where they can carve out governmental largesse. That’s certainly what’s happening in South Korea.

However, HTWO, the spinoff that Hyundai is putting its H2 dreams into, is also projecting getting into other areas. For the litany of reasons listed above, it’s a bad choice of technology for grid storage and backup, so those applications are likely dead in the water compared to lithium-ion and redox flow batteries, and closed-loop pumped hydro storage, the technologies I see as the dominant choices for the coming decades.

So that’s its cars, light trucks, transport trucks, backup supplies for industrial applications, and grid storage dreams that are going to founder eventually. Drones, something it also posits as an application, are an even sillier idea. H2 forklifts have some advantages although they are a tiny fraction of the market, which is split 60:40 between battery electric and diesel.[9] They might suck some of the diesel ones, but I’d put my money on battery electric owning the entire market personally. Hyundai will undoubtedly not lose any money during this period. The chaebols know how to print KRW.

Basically, hydrogen as a fuel or as an energy storage mechanism is dead, mostly due to physics and chemistry, which are immutable challenges and make it non-competitive with widely available alternatives. But there are a couple of transportation modes where it has not been proven to be a waste of time yet: long distance air travel and long distance oceanic shipping, which represent 3–4% of global petroleum-based fuel consumption.[10] Short and medium haul are already electrifying, but battery energy density isn’t cutting it.

And both modes have significant additional climate change implications. Oceanic shipping produces a lot of carbon black — unburnt hydrocarbons which have a global warming potential up to 4,470 times that of CO2.[11] High-altitude jet travels releases CO2 into the stratosphere, where its impact is higher, as well as transient impacts of contrails and NOx emissions.[12] Also, the way that CO2e emissions are calculated are by country, and as a result emissions over international waters are a gap, and that’s where a lot of flights and shipping occurs. Note that a shift to biofuels or synthetic fuels only addresses a portion of these impacts.

As a result, Professor Mark Z. Jacobson of Stanford and 100% renewables by 2050 fame considers that hydrogen power trains have a strong potential for these markets.[13] For aviation, there are deeply problematic technical problems with hydrogen power trains, but they might be addressable through sufficient engineering. For oceanic shipping, there are no fuel cells at present with anywhere near the power generation of major diesel engines, so a lot of scaling up is required.

So the net is that Hyundai has convinced the South Korean government, if no other government, that hydrogen is a big part of the future. They’ll spend a bunch of money failing to realize that future, but will probably be okay, The citizens of South Korea will subsidize this folly more than they should, but it won’t bankrupt the state. But sticking with hydrogen fuel cell development might lead to the powertrains for long-haul aviation and oceanic shipping that we need.


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Written By

is Board Observer and Strategist for Agora Energy Technologies a CO2-based redox flow startup, a member of the Advisory Board of ELECTRON Aviation an electric aviation startup, Chief Strategist at TFIE Strategy and co-founder of distnc technologies. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future, and assisting executives, Boards and investors to pick wisely today. Whether it's refueling aviation, grid storage, vehicle-to-grid, or hydrogen demand, his work is based on fundamentals of physics, economics and human nature, and informed by the decarbonization requirements and innovations of multiple domains. His leadership positions in North America, Asia and Latin America enhanced his global point of view. He publishes regularly in multiple outlets on innovation, business, technology and policy. He is available for Board, strategy advisor and speaking engagements.

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