INTERVIEW: Dr. Seky Chang discusses hydrail

In a recent interview with Energy News, Seky Chang, a Korean transportation expert, discussed how he has concentrated on developing hydrogen-based transportation solutions.

He held various positions with various companies, most recently with Korea Railroad Research Institute (KRRI), where he conducted research on systems connected to railroads. Now that he has retired, he is doing research on various hydrogen trends by attending events that are aimed at exposing broad trends for the use of hydrogen energy in trains and other forms of public transportation.

Find out how Seky Chang is still influencing hydrail development in Korea in our interview with him below.

Who is Seky Chang?

I was born in Seoul, Korea. After I obtained a Ph.D. degree in the field of engineering, I worked at POSCO for 10 years and transferred my job to the Korea Railroad Research Institute (KRRI) which is one of the Korean government-funded research institutes. I started railway-related studies after that time and devoted myself to developing the vehicles for the new traffic system. I was registered in Marquis where I finished some projects. I don’t work at KRRI anymore. I retired from KRRI.

INTERVIEW: Dr. Seky Chang discusses hydrail

When I worked at KRRI, I contracted a new national research project in Korea 20 years ago, which was on the key technologies for public transportation. It covered a new traffic system focusing on the vehicle, infrastructure, operation system, and convenience for the mobility handicapped. I managed the whole project but I was interested in the new energy system. So, I suggested a hydrogen fuel cell system for the power source of new means of transportation to the project supporting department of the Korean government. Then, I commissioned a part of the research task to Hyundai motors and worked with them together to develop a fuel cell system. But the government asked us to change the fuel energy from hydrogen to natural gas for the new traffic vehicle since the supply of hydrogen was not ready for commercial use at that time.

How did you start attending hydrail conferences?

But I kept collecting information on hydrogen fuel cell systems and their application to railway cars and continued to propose plans for hydrogen railway systems to the government. In the meantime, I searched the overseas trend for hydrogen railway systems and found the hydrail conference on the internet. I needed networking and attended the hydrail conference held in Catawba College, Salisbury, NC in 2007. I met Stan there for the first time. He welcomed me and was very kind to every attendee. He held the conference with fervor.

You attended many hydrail gatherings, how was it like?

The hydrail conference helped me to understand and share general trends for the use of hydrogen energy in railway and public transportation systems rather than the detailed engineering knowledge of hydrogen fuel cell power systems. I could meet various people who were interested in the use of hydrogen for public transportation at the conference. Stan invited two Asian speakers (Seky and Tarun from India) to his home for dinner and showed us the surrounding areas. We had a very impressive first encounter. Stan is not an expert in hydrogen and railway systems but was a key man who held the conference very energetically with a passionate will to replace diesel trains with hydrogen ones to make an emission-free environment.

INTERVIEW: Dr. Seky Chang discusses hydrail

Jason Hoyle of Appalachian state university supported Stan with various activities and I was able to get close to him through repeated meetings at the hydrail conferences. I believe not a few people helped Stan in various ways, but Stan was at the center of the hydrail activity with many ideas and a positive drive to continue to hold the conference. Most people who attend the hydrail conferences are important, but I think Stan is a leading figure since he is still working for the hydrogen economy with exceptional thirst and effort.

Which companies in Korea are at the forefront of hydrail?

In Korea, Hyundai motors developed a hydrogen fuel cell bus in the early 2000s and operated the buses at the 2018 PyeongChang winter Olympic village. Hydrogen fuel cell cars are made by Hyundai motors and are sold on the market now. But the infrastructure and hydrogen stations are not sufficient at the moment. The leading company here to build trains is Rotem, which is one of the Hyundai group companies. Rotem makes an investment in the R&D of hydrogen energy, but there is no plan to build a hydrogen fuel cell train in earnest at the moment.

Hydrail in Korea? Current status and plans?

The application of zero-emission propulsion systems to train was consistently studied as a research project in Korea. Finally, a hydrogen fuel cell train was built last year through a national research project. It is on the KRRI test track now. KRRI contracted the project with the Korean government and a mid-sized company built the train body as a commission task. The key parts and components for the power and propulsion system were completed through the cooperative work of KRRI researchers and the participating companies.

INTERVIEW: Dr. Seky Chang discusses hydrail
INTERVIEW: Dr. Seky Chang discusses hydrail

The previous Korean administration/president showed many concerns about alternative or renewable energies but such an energy policy is pushed back in the present administration that took office last year. Thus, the financial support for the hydrogen economy became less positive. The application of hydrogen energy to railway transportation still needs a systematic revision of laws and regulations for infrastructure in Korea.

Are there any concrete steps in Korean railways?

Since the hydrogen fuel cell-powered train was built last year, consultation with the relevant government department is needed for commercial operation.

One hundred thirty-one diesel commuter trains are operated on the eleven lines in Korea. Most of them are planned to be replaced with electrification. Some of them are hopefully replaced with hydrogen fuel cell trains.

In the near future, LRT, commuter trains, and trams are promising with hydrogen fuel cell power. Depending on the development speed of the fuel cell system, some of the metro trains and heavy railway trains are expected to be replaced by hydrogen FC ones.

If the cost of fuel cell systems is lowered in line with the global trend aiming for zero emission, hydrail is expected to be diffused widely.

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