Enabling the transition to the Hydrogen Economy

The world is shifting towards clean energy in response to the climate crisis. Could hydrogen be the answer? South Korea seems to think so.

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The hegemony of the world economy will be determined by countries that will dominate renewable energy, Dr Saehoon Kim, Senior Vice President and Head of Fuel Cell Centre at Hyundai Motor Group, told the BNP Paribas Sustainable Future Forum in Korea, in an interview with Helen Jung, Senior Executive Director, Corporate Coverage, at BNP Paribas in Seoul.

The Korean government, which has mainly been reliant on fossil fuels, announced in October 2020 that the country will be carbon neutral by 2050. Prior to this, in January 2019, the Korean government presented a roadmap to become a leading country in the hydrogen economy with its world-class technologies in hydrogen cars and fuel cells [1].

At the virtual Forum, Dr Saehoon Kim gave his insights on the development of the hydrogen economy and his vision for future mobility.

Dr Saehoon Kim and Helen Jung in conversation at SFF Korea 2020
How is the change in the energy paradigm in line with climate change and global environmental regulations around the world?

The hottest issue on climate change had been the direction of the US, which was less engaged in global climate change policy over the last four years. With the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States, a strong push for climate policy is expected and this will accelerate the transition to clean energy worldwide.

Several countries have already tightened environmental regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In the case of the automobile industry, the emission standard set by the European Union (EU) was lowered from 130g per kilometre in 2015 to 95g in 2020. Automakers that do not meet this would face heavy fines or severe sanctions such as banning sales of vehicles. In Europe, environmental regulations on vehicles are rapidly strengthening with the aim of becoming carbon neutral by 2050.

Dr Saehoon Kim
In this energy paradigm shift, what is the importance of hydrogen and the efforts of each country to lead the hydrogen economy?

Hydrogen is attracting attention as a new energy source to replace existing fossil fuels. Hydrogen can be liquefied, transported, stored in large quantities and has the advantage of being a decarbonised energy source, which can be used in various fields such as transportation energy, industrial energy, building energy and industrial raw materials. Following Japan, Korea and Australia, several countries have announced policies related to hydrogen and are striving to become a leader in the hydrogen economy, which is still in an early development stage [2]. When the transition to renewable energy is in full swing, oil-producing countries will change. The current oil-producing countries are also striving to maintain their position and new countries will emerge gaining the status of oil-producing countries.

What is the development status of hydrogen vehicles that are leading to the hydrogen economy?

Many people ask me whether it will be hydrogen cars or electric cars in the future, but the answer is clear, there will be both electric cars and hydrogen cars. The market share will vary depending on the type of mobility device. Short distances are possible with electric vehicles, but ships, trains, airplanes need much more energy because they have to travel long distances, and because they need to store a large amount of energy, the energy must be light. In that respect, hydrogen fuel is more advantageous.

Another thing to consider is geographical characteristics. For example, in case of Korea, wind does not constantly blow and at times the sun is not strong, making it difficult to produce renewable energy. However, in Australia, if we were to install same solar facilities there, it can generate twice as much electricity as in Korea. Therefore, green energy should be imported from countries that can easily produce renewables, and the form will be hydrogen. To create the electricity needed for electric vehicles in the future, we need to produce renewables or import hydrogen and supply them to electric vehicles. In countries like Korea, which is not necessarily well positioned to produce renewable energy, renewable energy must be imported and converted into electricity. In this case, one more processing is required to convert hydrogen to electricity, and hydrogen cars can be more advantageous.

What are some of the business areas that can be impacted when the hydrogen fuel cell business is fully commercialised?

The whole energy system in the petroleum era will change. There are too many things to list them all. But as an example, for a car, a fuel cell is necessary. A fuel cell is similar to a battery, but the parts inside are different. Fuel cells require a variety of technologies, such as a system to supply hydrogen, air and cooling. Since a lot of technology is required to produce, transport and store hydrogen, technology in all areas are impacted where hydrogen and electricity are used. Hydrogen trucks are attracting attention these days. There is a competition between hydrogen cars and electric cars, but fuel cells are advantageous for trucks. Because trucks are heavy and need to travel long distances, fuel cells with large quantities of energy are the only possible pollution-free option.

What areas of hydrogen-related industries will receive attention when the transition to the hydrogen economy is realised?

In Korea, we tend to focus on the utilisation of hydrogen such as charging stations and fuel cells. Since we need to convert renewable energy to hydrogen, active development on production technology of hydrogen is expected. South Korea has in fact been planning to be the first country with hydrogen-powered cities by 2022.

According to the roadmaps of Germany and Europe, they all aim to produce clean hydrogen on a large scale. In countries where renewable energy is scarce, it would be important to focus on hydrogen production technology.

Hydrogen storage technology is also important as the economy emerges. Storage technology will develop and hydrogen piping will be installed for hydrogen distribution. In Europe, plans are already being developed on how to build long-term hydrogen pipelines. I think it is most advantageous to install piping for hydrogen transportation. The reason why hydrogen is still expensive is due to high transportation costs, and when piping is laid, the price drops drastically and gains competitiveness. In the future, hydrogen production will be done in solar or wind powered facilities, but when electricity is produced and converted to hydrogen, it must be stored. Hydrogen pipes will be the most viable way to transport and store hydrogen.

Why hydrogen?

Hydrogen (H₂) is a gas composed of two hydrogen atoms (H). The hydrogen atom is the most abundant, lightest and simplest element in the universe – more than 90% of all atoms in the universe are hydrogen atoms.

On earth, about two-thirds of all molecules contain one or more hydrogen atoms which always bond with other atoms. Hydrogen is lighter than air, it is highly flammable and when burned with pure oxygen, it produces pure water as waste product and emits no CO2. Hence the scientific interest in using hydrogen for combustion engines in transport (automobile, airplanes and ships) or power production.

Watch the full event replay:

[1] Ministry of Trade Industry and Energy, 17 January 2020
[2] International Hydrogen Strategies (‘20.9, World Energy Council)