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Korea Leaves West Behind In Fuel Cell Race

When George W. Bush proclaimed in 2003 that “the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen and pollution-free,” the former U.S. President was suggesting the United States could reduce its dependence on foreign oil and be more environmentally friendly to boot. At the time, Bush’s $1.2 billion hydrogen fuel initiative was seen as forward-thinking by environmentalists, though it certainly had its critics.

The initiative was aimed at lowering the cost of producing hydrogen enough to make fuel-cell vehicles competitive with gas-powered ones by 2010, but 12 years later, it is clear that “the hydrogen highway” is still a long way from being built.

With only a handful of hydrogen fuel stations in the U.S., mostly in California, there is virtually no demand for hydrogen cars, and with only a few hundred of the vehicles produced annually, there is equally low incentive to build the fuelling infrastructure for them.

A Volkswagen executive recently said that hydrogen fuel vehicles are hopeless outside Japan, where there are extensive government subsidies, but a short hop away, in South Korea, fuel cells are taking off - and not just under a car hood. Related: Investors Turning Away From Green Energy

Recently, South Korean conglomerates have been partnering with U.S. fuel-cell makers to make the systems more economical, since they are primarily being targeted for commercial and industrial uses.

While fuel cells are often mentioned in the context of hydrogen-powered cars, they also have applications as primary and secondary power supply at industrial sites; fuel cells can also be used to power homes. All fuel cell technology works under the same principle: hydrogen gas is fed into one side of the fuel cell, while air is fed into the other. Hydrogen passes through the layers of the fuel cell, inducing a positive and negative charge, which generates an electrical current. The hydrogen combines with the oxygen to form H20. Individual fuel cells can be stacked to provide more power.

As a major energy importer, specifically liquefied natural gas, South Korea is looking to diversify its energy mix beyond fossil fuels and nuclear. As an example, by 2030 Seoul is planning to meet 20 percent of its energy demands from renewable energy sources, with 10 percent sourced from fuel cells – enough to power 400,000 homes. Related: Terawatt Solar Farms By 2050?

Last year the world’s largest fuel cell plant opened in Hwasung City, on the northwest coast. The 5.1-acre facility consists of 21 2.8-megawatt hydrogen fuel cells supplied by FuelCell Energy, of Danbury, Connecticut. The 59-MW fuel cell park is owned and operated by POSCO Energy, Korea’s largest independent power producer.

In another U.S.-Korean fuel cell partnership, Doosan Fuel Cell America announced on May 5 that six of its power plants have gone live in a Seoul suburb, providing 2.6MW of energy.

In March, British fuel-cell maker AFC Energy Plc agreed to work with two South Korean companies in a deal that could be worth up to $1 billion over 10 years. Backed by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, the project is with Samyoung Corp. and Chang Shin Chemical Co., who will initially install 50MW of fuel cells in Daesan, South Korea. Related: Can Cigarettes Beat Tesla At The Energy Storage Game?

Older deals include LG Corp. taking a 51 percent stake in Rolls Royce Holdings Plc’s Fuel Cell Systems, and GE agreeing to manufacture fuel cells in the U.S. and Asia with South Korean company GS Caltex Corp.

While the fuel cell focus is on industrials, the North Asian nation hasn’t forgotten about the automotive market. In 2014 Hyundai Motor Co. introduced the world’s first mass-produced fuel cell car, the Tucson SUV, and according to the Korean Ministry of the Environment, the government is looking to supply at least 1,000 hydrogen vehicles and 10 charging stations by 2020.

Of course, the success of that initiative will depend on consumer uptake, but already, it appears that South Korea is becoming a leader in the adoption of fuel cell technology. According to Navigant Research, the country will have the largest share of the $1-billion stationary fuel cell market this year, a market that will reach $15 billion by 2022.

By Andrew Topf of Oilprice.com

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  • John Scior on June 01 2015 said:
    Fuel cells cannot be a source of energy only a storage medium. If say the original power source wherein the hydrogen is generated, then thusly that is the source of the power and thereby how can Seoul source 10 percent of its power from fuel cells ??
  • Seth on June 01 2015 said:
    Headline reads, "Korea Leaves West Behind In Fuel Cell Race."

    Then the article goes on to mention that the Fuel Cell plants are a partnership between Korean and U.S. firms. Isn't the U.S. in the "West?"
  • Jim Seko on June 01 2015 said:
    I used to be a supporter of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles but I've changed my mind based on some things I've learned in the past year.

    Currently, 95% of commercially available hydrogen comes from steam reformation of natural gas. This is mainly because hydrogen from clean energy is quite expensive, about $12 per kilogram. A kilogram of hydrogen is the energy equivalent to a gallon of gasoline. Clean hydrogen is expensive because of inefficency. Roughly 75% of the energy is wasted.
    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/8d/Battery_EV_vs._Hydrogen_EV.png/1050px-Battery_EV_vs._Hydrogen_EV.png
  • Charlie Peters on June 04 2015 said:
    * Do you want $2 Gasoline at the pump?

    * Do you want clean air and water?

    Ethanol waiver and elimination of E-85 flex fuel credit can cut our ozone & CO2 transportation pollution over 50%

    Let’s improve performance of CA Climate change law AB 32 (Pavley) in 2015 for future generations

    Is it time for an Attorney General, EPA conversation?

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