Korea H2 Economy

From a foreign S&T perspective

it is easy to see great opportunities for hydrogen in South Korea: A large and dense population in a few mega-cities in a country with seasonal air-quality challenges, a world-class automotive industry and a strong innovation profile: Of course they should bet on an ambitious plan to innovate on hydrogen in public private partnerships!

If Korea succeed in their hydrogen plans they can have an auto-industry that is well positioned for EV’s with better range than pure battery EV’s, and technological know-how to develop fuel cells to electrify otherwise hard-to-electrify energy users such as shipping (another significant Korean industry), long-haul trucks, remote housing and what-not.

I’d say Korea has the means and the motivation to succeed but they are not without challenges

Hydrogen (H2) is, as everybody knows, not an energy source but an energy carrier. Except for the core of the Sun where nuclear fusion of hydrogen powers the Sun, but that is not a process replicable on earth as it requires temperature levels that we really can’t handle. Yet.

For all practical purposes hydrogen is a carrier of energy, like a battery. Energy is used to produce a liquid or compressed hydrogen gas that is converted in a fuel cell back to electricity. Used in a car, a Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle, or FCEV, it has the flexibility benefits of fossil-fuels with fast re-fueling and long range but lacks the EV benefits of having few parts and universally available energy-source.

There are at least three glaring challenges. The still lacking but necessary infrastructure. The low efficiency where some claim you only get as little as 15 percent out of the energy that you put in. And the fact that the climate effect of the FCEV will only be as clean as the energy was that was used to make the hydrogen.

We can consider these challenges as work-orders for projects of disruptive industrial innovation in PPP to overcome. Enabling a safe and ubiquitous infrastructure, increasing the efficiency and finding smart ways to produce the desired gas or liquid. Are the Koreans taking on this perspective? I don’t know, I haven’t seen them phrase it like this and I haven’t seen much of research efforts in this direction, not counting ambitious projects for development (not the same). Are the Koreans capable of taking on a hydrogen challenge that include long-term commitments, lots of public (and private) spending on Science and Innovation? Of course, but I’m not sure they have the patience for it. I fear they are too anxious to see results and instead will focus on improvements on innovations coming from elsewhere.

President Moon Jae-in, introduced a Hydrogen Economy Roadmap in January this year. The Big Goal is to increase the number of FCEV’s on the roads from 893 in 2018 to 2,9 million by 2040.

One year later, there are projects and partners across the board to enable the market to develop in this direction. The government has put sandbox-regulation in place to permit live testing, and report on their progress in a printed report “Korea energy Network For Global Cooperation on Hydrogen”. Unfortunately, not available online but reach out to energy.mofa.go.kr and you may get a copy sent to you.

The government propose in this report an international consortium to work on specific hydrogen-related challenges. At the outset, the Consortium include three projects that companies in Korea have initiated: Liquid Hydrogen for Air Taxis. Liquid Hydrogen for Refueling and Liquid Hydrogen Export Development.

It will be worth following the Korean bet on H2 closely.