(From left) Hyun-soo Kim / Jung-hee Park / Tae-gyu Lee – senior researcher
There is a difference between new materials and advanced materials. Advanced materials are materials with new functionalities. If a new concrete is capable of repairing itself when a crack forms, it can be referred to as advanced concrete. Many of the materials used today were in fact high-tech materials in the past. Advanced materials in development today are developed with new technologies which could create entirely new market opportunities.
In fact, advanced materials are about creating great new value in the future mobility business. This is why Hyundai Motor Group is investing in technologies at all levels including core, application and processing of high-tech materials for autonomous driving systems, connectivity systems, non-rare earth-based magnets for electric motors and next generation semiconductors.
New Functions Creating New Values
Things change over time and are replaced completely at times. The automobile industry is facing huge changes with the emergence of connectivity, autonomous driving, sharing and electrification. A century-old model is transforming for the future. So, what is required to lead this transformation? The hightech materials lab provides some clues to answer this as they are currently developing new technologies making high-tech materials that will give us core competitiveness in the future mobility business.
Q What aspect of advanced materials research is the current focus of the Advanced Materials Lab?
Electric motors running on electricity stored in batteries are the new engine of today’s green vehicles. The strength and characteristics of electricity needs to be altered when it is sent from the battery to the electric motor or sent from the generator to the battery. This is done by a power conversion semiconductor. I am currently working on advanced materials for high-efficiency power conversion semiconductors. Simply put, it allows electric vehicles to have an increased range without having to increase the size of the battery or have the same range with a smaller battery.
Sensors for automobiles are tiny. Today, many people are concerned about air quality and there are sensors which are capable of detecting air pollutants. I am currently developing various sensors capable of detecting different pollutants in the air or detecting hydrogen leakage in hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles. A key parameter in sensor development is enhancing sensitivity which requires the identification of ideal materials for the sensor.
I am responsible for electric motor development. Finding replacements to the rare earth materials used in electric motors is a big challenge especially because most of them are sourced from only one country, China, making electric motor production vulnerable to trade conflict. We are therefore working on motors that do not require rare earth materials.
To date, we have not achieved the desired performance with the motors used in the drivetrain, without using rare earth materials. However, we thought it might be possible to develop motors without using rare earths for applications such as windows, wipers and seats. We are also looking for replacement materials to ferrite magnet which will allow us to make electric motors for the drivetrain which are smaller and lighter. We expect to eventually replace electric motors built with permanent magnets made of rare earth by making continued improvements to electric motors that use magnets that do not contain rare earths.
Q Is it possible to buy advanced materials and technologies? What is the benefit of a car company developing advanced materials and technology directly?
We buy semiconductors from external suppliers and this is the case for most carmakers. There are semiconductor manufacturing companies with large dedicated teams and capital. We wouldn’t be able to compete with them even with significant investment. Dedicated semiconductor companies investment is equivalent to our own and have thousands of R&D staff. Nevertheless, we are still researching semiconductors so we don’t become completely dependent on external suppliers. Semiconductors function as a part of the semiconductor module and electricity conversion system. If a semiconductor chip is designed for general application, it might be necessary to redesign the electricity conversion system to make it compatible with the chip.
We are in the best position to identify what characteristics are required in semiconductor chips for electricity conversion systems. Researching semiconductors also allows us to predict and provide direction for advanced technologies in the field and to provide opportunities for collaboration. Many people criticized me when my team was researching silicon carbide, an advanced material, saying even the dedicated semiconductor manufacturers were not working on it. However, many semiconductor companies and automakers are now making power semiconductors and I feel quite proud of my work.
I fully agree. The same is true for sensors. Many types of sensors are manufactured in relatively small quantities and it is impossible for a car company to make all the sensors for its cars. However, it is important for car companies to have a good understanding of sensor technology, at least enough to tackle problems with suppliers together and to avoid total dependence.
Q What is the latest hot issue in the field of advanced materials research?
Most semiconductors are made using silicon. Silicon wafers have become cheap, and of high quality thanks to economies of scale. This is not the case for high efficiency power conversion semiconductors which are made of silicon carbide and gallium oxide. They are manufactured in small volumes, are expensive and have a high number of defects. For example, a silicon carbide wafer is about 100 times more expensive than a silicon wafer.
The sky is the limit when it comes to price of gallium oxide wafers. This is true in almost all industry sectors where the supply of advanced materials is scarce. We are trying very hard to find a way to improve the situation by increasing the potential market. Sustained investment in relevant R&D will help the market grow.
Q What direction should Hyundai Motor Group’s advanced materials R&D take?
I think Hyundai Motor Group should not limit its advanced materials research to applications within the automotive industry. Permanent magnets without rare earths is the current R&D focus but it should also work on a superconducting motor. Recently popularized fuel cell electric vehicles would greatly benefit if hydrogen tanks could be replaced with a storage facility which could store liquid hydrogen. Hydrogen can be liquefied when it is well below -200℃ which also makes superconducting possible. I think we will be able to become a leader in the future mobility market by creating synergy with different new technologies.
Navigating the future of R&D is a never-ending quest but I think it is time to shift our direction. In the past, we focused on technologies that could be popularized immediately, so our R& D projects had very limited timespans. I think we should invest in more projects with a long-term view. For example, we should invest in developing core technologies which wide-ranging applications beyond sensors. I think this holds true for other advanced materials research.
I am responsible for developing power conversion semiconductors using advanced materials. This means the materials and technologies I have developed can have a significant impact on customer’s decision about whether to purchase an Hyundai Motor Group hybrid or electric vehicle over other brands. I want to ensure that Hyundai and Kia cars are superior in energy efficiency compared to other brands so that Hyundai and Kia can become the brand of choice when it comes to green cars. I want customers to buy our cars because of their superb energy efficiency and to feel proud knowing that we can work together to protect the environment.
I think Hyundai Motor Group can boost its value if it can manufacture advanced materials that can be used not only in automobiles but in airplanes and ships. It will strengthen customers’ confidence in our technological capacity if we are also making airplanes.