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Jon LeSage

Jon LeSage

Jon LeSage is a California-based journalist covering clean vehicles, alternative energy, and economic and regulatory trends shaping the automotive, transportation, and mobility sectors.

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Fatal Explosion Slams South Korea’s Hydrogen Future

South Korea, like China and Japan, wants to see hydrogen stations fueling a million-plus fuel cell vehicles on its roads — but public safety is a major hurdle that must be crossed.  

South Korean resident groups have been protesting hydrogen stations being built in their area following a May explosion in a hydrogen storage tank at a government research project in the city of Gangneung. Two people were killed, six injured, and the complex half the size of a soccer field was destroyed.

A month later, an explosion occurred at a hydrogen refueling station in Norway. This week, three South Korean workers were burned at a chemical plant caused by a hydrogen leak and subsequent fire.

A preliminary investigation into the fatal May explosion determined that the blast was caused by a spark after oxygen found its way into the tank.

“One victim was blown away by pressure and then killed after being hit by rock,” said Kong Gikwang, a lawyer who represents the family of one of the two who died in a lawsuit against the research complex.

One South Korean had been concerned enough about pollution coming from a planned hydrogen production plant in the port city of Incheon to begin a month-long hunger strike. It began two days before the explosion and then shifted over to safety concerns. Incheon has agreed to review the safety and environmental impact of the plant after hundreds of area residents attended protests and clamored for change.

Hydrogen and fuel cell vehicle backers in South Korea, China, and Japan, have been promoting the fuel as a clean energy source that complements electric vehicle adoption. It can come from a number of sources, including methane, coal, water, and even garbage.

Backers also make the argument that hydrogen dispensers refuel vehicles as fast as gasoline and diesel pumps, and much faster than even the fastest EV charger. The fuel and vehicle technology can complement EVs in driving range and are beating electric for heavy vehicles driving longer distances, especially city buses. Related: LNG Investments Hit Record In 2019

Hydrogen also offers the appeal of greater energy security — especially for Japan, which is still reeling from the 2011 nuclear plant accidents. The country also sees hydrogen as a solution to its scarcity of energy resources.

But the adoption rate has been far behind goals set by the governments. China wants more than one million fuel cell vehicles on its roads by 2030, but so far only about 1,500 have made it there with most being buses.

Japan wants 800,000 FCVs in service by 2030. So far, only about 3,400 have been sold  -- in a country that launched the prominent Toyota Mirai and Honda Clarity fuel cell vehicles in recent years.

South Korea has a vehicle market only a third the size of Japan but wants an even larger number of FCVs — 850,000 — sold in the market by 2030. So far, less than 3,000 of these vehicles have been sold.

President Moon Jae-in has declared himself an ambassador for the technology, and named that ambitious target to be reached over the next decade. He sees hydrogen power the “future bread and butter” for his country’s economy.

South Korea’s fueling network has been part of the problem in getting anywhere near the goal. It’s initial target of having 114 of these stations in place by the end of this year won’t be met. So far, only 29 of them have been completed. They’re being slowed down by lack of funds from local governments and companies that have needed to shoulder half the costs, delays in finding station sites, and opposition from local residents.

The fatal hydrogen explosion in May has slowed down efforts to build out the fueling infrastructure. In the city of Pyeongtaek, two gasoline stations were chosen to add hydrogen pumps in April. Within three months, both businesses turned down the offer and the city had to start its search over again. Related: You’re Footing The Bill For Bankrupt Shale Drillers

Korean maker Hyundai has been counting on subsidies and fuel stations to encourage purchases of its Hyundai Nexo fuel cell SUV. Hyundai touts the Nexo as an “air purifier on the road,” and is counting on Seoul to continue these incentives so that the automaker can achieve economies of scale and profitability with its fuel cell vehicles.

Hyundai plans to invest about $6.5 billion by 2030 on hydrogen R&D and facilities. Part of that will be continuing supporting the hydrogen fueling station build out. The company hopes to produce 40,000 FCVs per year by 2022, a steep climb from its goal of hitting the 11,000 target next year.

Safety has always been a concern for adoption of fuel cell vehicles and hydrogen stations. Years ago, the word “hydrogen” had been correlated to the exploding hydrogen-filled Hindenburg blimp in 1937 and the thermonuclear hydrogen bombs being tested in the 1950s. Automakers and their colleagues have to overcome that challenge, and Hyundai has been spending some of its marketing budget on raising awareness and improving public opinion for hydrogen and FCVs.

By Jon LeSage for Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Bill Simpson on October 01 2019 said:
    The hydrogen tank in a vehicle you are riding in gets punctured in a wreck, and you're almost certainly dead.
    Hydrogen makes most metals brittle. Hydrogen leaks out through the smallest microscopic crack or defect. You need a perfect seal to contain it. Hydrogen is such a pain to work with, that even NASA doesn't like to use it. But in some cases in rocketry, it is too light to not use. Although Elon Musk has moved on to using methane as a fuel. He refers to fuel cells as 'fool cells'.

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