11/07/2024

11 July 2024
11 July 2024, Comments Comments Off on Hydrogen – Part one
Hydrogen - Part one

Hydrogen: a new goal for camper propulsion and energy autonomy?

An investigation on what part hydrogen might play in campers of the future

Words Terry Owen

In the constant drive towards zero emissions, battery electric vehicles (BEVs) are increasingly being seen as the future. Clean, efficient, and emission free, these vehicles point the way forward but they all rely on one thing – battery power and, for the time being at least, that means lithium.
Apart from the environmental impact of mining lithium and its associated battery metals such as cobalt, nickel and manganese, we still have limited driving ranges and long charging times when compared to fossil fuels. The technology is advancing slowly but the promised solid-state battery has yet to arrive.
That’s why, up to now, we’ve seen so few battery-electric motorhomes, or cars capable of towing a caravan or travel trailer. Although the situation is slowly improving, recharging can double journey times and, if you’re towing, you’ll almost certainly have to unhook your trailer and find somewhere safe to park it whilst you take your towcar to the charging point. Towing also significantly reduces a vehicle’s range, often by 50%, meaning you’ll need to recharge twice as often.
Battery degradation is also beginning to become an issue as vehicles age, with new batteries often costing more than the value of the vehicle. Insurance too, can be a problem.
It’s interesting to note that, both in Europe and the US sales of BEV’s are now stalling as private buyers in particular continue to reject BEV models. According to the UK’s Telegraph newspaper, sales of electric vehicles (EVs) to ordinary drivers plunged by almost a fifth this year, amid calls for the government revive the stalling market by cutting taxes. It goes on to say that consumer EV sales were 17% lower for the first two months of 2024 compared to the same period a year earlier.
Meanwhile, in the US in November 2023, the Economist reported that 92 days’ worth of EVs languished on dealership forecourts, compared with just 54 days of gas-guzzler inventory.

The rise of hydrogen

Against this backdrop, hydrogen is slowly gaining ground as an alternative zero-emission fuel. With refuelling times akin to those of fossil fuels and the ability to produce heat and power off grid, hydrogen could just be the perfect fuel for the RV world.
With motorhomes and campers in mind it also helps that hydrogen tanks are easier to package in a van type vehicle, while the lower weight of a fuel-cell or hydrogen-combustion van compared with a battery-electric one allows for a greater payload.
So far, the take up of hydrogen technology has been slow, partly due to the lack of refuelling points. However, the situation is now changing.
In the EU a major piece of legislation boosting the use of hydrogen in transport came into force in September 2023. The Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Regulation (AFIR) requires the 27 member states to ensure that publicly accessible hydrogen filling stations for both heavy and light duty vehicles are set up in every “urban node” and every 200 km along the core routes of the planned Trans-European Transport Network by 2030.
Meanwhile, in the USA, the Biden administration has published its National Zero-Emission Freight Corridor Strategy to support the decarbonisation of medium and heavy-duty trucks. It has an eye toward ‘ubiquitous and convenient’ access to hydrogen refuelling stations and electric charge points by 2040.

Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs)

For vehicle propulsion, hydrogen is used in one of two ways. Most commonly, it powers a fuel cell to produce electricity for a battery which then acts as a reservoir to supply power for driving and other systems. This type of vehicle is known as a fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV).
Fuel cell vehicles, using electric motors, are relatively energy efficient although not as efficient as using grid power direct from a battery. A fuel cell system can use 60% of the fuel’s energy—corresponding to more than a 50% reduction in fuel consumption compared to a conventional vehicle with a gasoline internal combustion engine. Mercedes was an early demonstrator this technology with their F-Cell Sprinter van which debuted at the Caravan Salon in Dusseldorf in 2018.
The big advantage of FCEVs over BEVs is fast refuelling times and potentially greater ranges. The downside is cost because of the complex nature of the technology when compared to BEV and internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. The lower efficiency of FCEVs compared to BEVs is due to energy losses in hydrogen production, compression, storage, and fuel cell conversion.

Industry take-up of hydrogen technology

H2 ICE technology is particularly well suited to the truck and heavy-duty engine markets where high working loads prevail and rugged performance is a must. Space for gas tanks is also much less of an issue.
An early adopter was UK plant manufacturer JCB, who quickly realised the potential of the technology and developed engines with a performance similar to the diesel ones they replaced. Today JCB has been joined by other big names such as Cummins, Deutz and Volvo.
Volvo says “We see hydrogen combustion engines as eminently suitable for long haul applications where there is limited access to, or time for, recharging, and refuelling options are limited. Hydrogen combustion technology is a key element in the ongoing transition to net zero emissions that will support our customers’ journey and investments in reducing their carbon footprint.”
More recently Stellantis’ CEO, Carlos Tavares, has announced that it too is working on hydrogen combustion engines as one of four different solutions to zero-emissions driving. Speaking at the opening of the Symbio hydrogen fuel cell factory in Lyon, France, in December 2023, Tavares went on to say that “The real competition is starting between fuel cell, EVs, hydrogen internal combustion engines and even synthetic fuels. We will see in the next few years what is going to be the best solution for the citizens.”
Tavares didn’t elaborate on which of its vehicles might be offered with hydrogen combustion engines but it is already selling its K0 range of mid-sized vans (e.g. Opel/Vauxhall Vivaro) with fuel cell options.
Toyota is also a vocal advocate of hydrogen. In January this year its chairman and former CEO, Akio Toyoda, told industry executives he believed the share of battery cars would peak at just 30% of the market. The remaining 70% would comprise hybrid, hydrogen fuel-cell, and hydrogen combustion engines.
Based on fuel cell technology, Toyota’s Mirai is one of the few hydrogen-powered cars that are widely available (alongside the Nexo SUV from Hyundai). Toyota has also demonstrated hydrogen combustion engines in both the Yaris and Corolla race cars running in Japan.
A further sign of the industry’s support for H2 ICE technology is the formation of the Hydrogen Engine Alliance. This is a consortium of companies including Daimler Truck, Claas, Isuzu, JCB, MAN and suppliers such as Bosch, BorgWarner and Dana that has been established to promote the case for the H2 ICE route.

Hydrogen internal combustion engines (H2 ICEs)

Another way to use hydrogen for propulsion is to burn it in a fuel in an internal combustion engine. This works in a similar way to petrol and diesel vehicles, but using gas instead of liquid fuel. The only emission is water and a small amount of nitrogen oxide (NOx) gasses which can easily be treated via conventional AdBlue technology. The downside is that it’s less efficient than FCEV technology in most scenarios, so you won’t go as far on a given amount of hydrogen. Internal combustion engines tend to be at their most efficient under high load, where they can come close to the efficiency of FCEV’s.
H2 ICE technology has none of the disadvantages of lithium power, whilst being virtually as convenient as fossil fuels. What’s more it uses much of current engine technology.
Indeed, the modifications to a gasoline or diesel engine to make it run on hydrogen are relatively minor and cheap. It also means that servicing and maintenance requirements are already well understood with very little additional training required. One advantage over FCEVs is that the quality of the hydrogen needed is quite a bit lower than that needed for a fuel cell. This makes it both less costly to produce and easier to source.
Add to this the lack of disruption to supply chains when compared with BEVs or FCEVs and it’s easy to understand why hydrogen powered combustion engines are progressively being seen as the easiest and quickest route to zero-emissions driving.