Black is the New Black: Hyundai Hints at Hydrogen Future


On my way to the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Olympic Games, I was drawn to a big black building in the middle of the Olympic Plaza, located in Daegwallyeong, Gangwon Province. I mean really black. Blacker than the night’s sky. Vantablack.

The exterior was an oddity to look at: The surface and corners were difficult to discern, and small LED lights were speckled on the surface. Overall, it was visually stunning and not quite like anything else in the Olympic Plaza.

Welcome to the Hyundai Pavilion.

The Olympic Games is a time for the world to come together and cheer for the world’s greatest athletes with a message of unity and world harmony. It is also an opportunity for official sponsors to bring out their marketeers in force and showcase their company and products to the eyes of millions.

North Face has a spot with tents pitched outside, Samsung a massive showroom with smartphones and VR experience simulations, and McDonalds…a pavilion in the shape of a burger and fries (you read correctly) with, surprise, a McDonalds inside.

Except, in the Hyundai Pavilion, run by the Hyundai Motor Company, there is no product on display. No car, no boring demonstration. In fact, the interior resembles more a modern art gallery than a marketing exhibition hall.

“Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe — the same sustainable energy that will fuel automotive vehicles of tomorrow,” one of the pavilion’s docents told me. It then all made sense: The showcased product is hydrogen. More specifically, hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV). Gotcha.

Most of the inner pavilion is white, a stark contrast to its shell. Visitors are then taken around four different themed rooms, each representing different parts of the hydrogen fuel cycle.

The Electrolysis Room, filled with protruding spherical copper mirrors that look like bubbles. They represent electricity, produced from solar energy, breaking water down through a chemical reaction into hydrogen and oxygen.

The Water Room, where beads of water trickle down grooves and get collected in a small pool. Clean water droplets are the byproduct of a hydrogen-powered car.

“We tried to build a story using concepts that are easy for spectators to visualize rather than focus on the product itself,” Heekyung Kwon, creative team manager at Hyundai’s Motors said.

“Many of the energy sources currently used in cars have their limitations. Fossil fuels are finite; while renewable energy such as electricity is emerging as a substitute, electricity can only be produced intermittently and is difficult to store. But hydrogen doesn’t have these limitations,” she said.

Hyundai Motor is one of the three automobile companies in the world selling hydrogen cars commercially (in select markets).

Earlier this year, at CES, the world’s largest consumer technology show, Hyundai showcased their new vehicle of the future: the Hyundai Nexo, its second FCEV.

It is slated to go on sale in South Korea in March this year with a price-tag of 40 million won ($37,200) after reflecting government subsidies. Aside from having to compete with the likes of Toyota and Honda, who already have released their own hydrogen-powered cars, the company faces one major obstacle on home turf: the lack of hydrogen filling stations.

As of 2018, there are reportedly only eleven hydrogen filling stations in Korea, of which five are for research purposes. The government is planning to bring the number to 100 by 2020 and 1000 by 2030.

Even in broad daylight, the Hyundai Pavillion looks, well, pitch black. (Raphael Rashid/Korea Exposé)

In order to whisk visitors into Hyundai’s so-called universe of hydrogen, the company enlisted renowned British architect Asif Khan to create this pavillion. The super-black facade absorbs 99 percent of all visible light (normal black paint absorbs up to 97 to 98 percent light, Hyundai claims).

To achieve this, Khan applied Vantablack VBx 2 on the surface, a sprayable derivative of Vantablack, considered to be one of the blackest materials on earth, developed by British company Surrey NanoSystems. The LEDs on the facade represent the stars in the universe.

Hyundai Motor remains confident. In a statement, the company said that it plans to build a nationwide network of charging station infrastructure with the help of the government, local governments and private energy companies. It also plans to open its own hydrogen charging stations.

The Hyundai Pavilion will be open during the Pyeongchang Olympics until Feb. 25, and re-open for the Paralympics between March 9-18.


Cover image: The Hyundai Pavilion in the Olympic Plaza, Pyeongchang. The facade’s material is so dark that it is difficult to discern surface features with the naked eye. (Raphael Rashid/Korea Exposé)

Raphael is a freelance journalist and fixer. He has an MA in Korean Studies from Korea University, and worked at Edelman Korea for three years representing some of South Korea's biggest conglomerates.