Hyundai Becomes First Company to Mass Produce Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars

The first mass-produced, zero-emissions, hydrogen-powered Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell vehicle at the No. 5 plant in Ulsan, South Korea.

Hyundai Motor Co. announced Tuesday that it has become the first company to begin mass production of a hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicle, with a goal of having the first cars hit European streets early next month.

[PHOTOS: The 2013 Washington Auto Show]

The company plans to lease 15 of its ix35 vehicles to the Municipality of Copenhagen, Denmark, over the next few months and wants to get 1,000 of its vehicles on the road by 2015. Those vehicles will be leased to private companies and governments. Hyundai hopes to start selling the car to consumers sometime in 2015.

Frank Ahrens, vice president of global corporate communications with the company, says the rollout is starting in Europe because they have a better hydrogen gas station infrastructure in place. With prices per vehicle in the “upper $100,000s per car,” the ix35—which emits only water vapor as its exhaust—is too expensive for general consumers right now, he says. The company hopes to bring the price of hydrogen cell cars down to about $50,000 by the time they’re ready to sell to consumers.

“Is this the ultimate car of the future, we don’t know, but we think it’ll be one of them,” he says. “We think it’s time to get these out on the road and in front of people’s faces.”

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Fuel cell vehicles use hydrogen gas combined with oxygen from the environment to create electricity in what is known as the fuel cell stack, which then powers a quiet electric motor. The only waste product is water vapor or a few water droplets. The Department of Energy notes that fuel cell vehicles “have the potential to significantly reduce our dependence on foreign oil and lower harmful emissions that contribute to climate change.”

Hyundai has been developing its hydrogen fuel cell technology since 1998, but until recently cars powered by the technology would have cost more than $1 million. Experts say the long-promised technology could one day replace internal combustion engines, but public concerns about safety and government indecision about which alternative fuel vehicle would be most appropriate for the U.S. market have slowed things down.

“Battery makers and fuel cell makers have faced a challenge where every two years the media or the government switches the flavor the month. First it was batteries, then fuel cells, then it was ethanol,” says David Friedman, deputy director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Clean Vehicles Program. “That created a lot of market uncertainty for companies—funding has gone up and down as public perceptions have gone up and down.”

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Hyundai’s vehicle can be refueled in about the same amount of time as it takes to refuel a gasoline car, has a top speed of 100 miles per hour, goes from 0-60 mph in 12.5 seconds, and can travel 365 miles on a single tank of gas.

Hydrogen gas can be created in a number of ways—some of which use carbon emissions at the point of creation. The cheapest and, according to Ahrens, “least attractive” environmentally is reforming natural gas to create hydrogen gas, which has a “higher carbon output than anyone would like.” Others are working on creating hydrogen fuel by electrifying water, and in California people are experimenting with extracting hydrogen from human waste as water treatment plants.

“It doesn’t take a lot of money to make a new hydrogen station,” he says. “We’re releasing these in Europe because they have a hydrogen roadmap—[the United States] has to have the will to do it.”

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