Lim Tae-won: South Korea’s Hydrogen Hero

To pave the way for cleaner transportation, Lim Tae-won is leading South Korea’s shift from gasoline-powered vehicles to ones powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

AsianScientist (May 26, 2021) – The automotive industry contributes close to 18 percent of global carbon emissions while the overall mobility industry (including air, rail and other modes) some 24 percent, according to the International Energy Agency. There is a clear, long-term need for innovations geared towards reducing that figure, given the urgency of climate change.

In urban Asia, the problem is particularly acute, as years of rapid income growth mean that vehicular populations have risen exponentially, often far outstripping road construction and other mobility planning capacities. Asia is thus leading the global shift from gasoline-powered vehicles to battery-electric and hydrogen fuel cell ones, largely in a bid to mitigate air pollution in its major cities.

Though battery-electric vehicles like Tesla’s are currently far more popular than those with hydrogen fuel cells, the latter technology is being powered by the likes of Japan and South Korea.

Proponents like hydrogen because it allows for much-lighter vehicles (batteries are heavy); faster ‘charging’ times (a hydrogen sedan fill-up takes under five minutes); and longer ranges.

Opponents decry the higher costs (including of producing and storing the hydrogen, and building a new network of hydrogen stations); the energy inefficiencies of the entire process (first, during the production of hydrogen outside the car, and then converting the hydrogen into electricity inside it); and the relative inconvenience, compared to battery-electric vehicles, of not being able to ‘charge’ your car at home.

Yet the last objection may work in hydrogen’s favor when it comes to the dense urban areas of Japan and South Korea. Many people live in tall apartment buildings and may not have space to charge their cars at home. No behavioral change is required when individual drivers transition from gasoline-powered vehicles to a hypothetical hydrogen-powered network. Similar-looking car, similar-looking ‘gas’ station.

South Korea plans to have 850,000 of such vehicles on the road by 2030. This initiative has been years in the making. Hyundai embarked on its hydrogen fuel cell vehicle mass production drive in 2013. This project was kickstarted by the pioneering work of Lim Tae-won, director of the Future Innovation Technology Center (FITC) at Hyundai Motor Company.

Lim graduated from the Department of Metallurgical Engineering at Yonsei University in 1984. He then pursued a masters and PhD degree at the Department of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering at the State University of New York (Buffalo), before joining Hyundai in 1991.

In 2000, he began work in the firm’s fuel cell development team, leading its efforts to create a hydrogen fuel cell small enough to be mounted on a vehicle at a competitive price. This ultimately resulted in the launch of the Tucson ix35 Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle in early 2013. His current work at FITC is focused towards developing new, more sustainable materials for the mobility industry at large.

“For the last 100 years, materials research for the automotive industry was mostly focused on cost and weight reduction, replacing steel parts with aluminum, plastics and other compound materials,” said Lim. “However, the focus is shifting with electrification as new materials and technologies are now employed in EV batteries, electric motors and fuel cells.”


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Illustration: Lianne Chua.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Asian Scientist Magazine is an award-winning science and technology magazine that highlights R&D news stories from Asia to a global audience. The magazine is published by Singapore-headquartered Wildtype Media Group.

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