What is a hydrogen internal combustion engine? Can it replace the EVs battery?

The Conference of the Parties (COP26) on the climate crisis, which ended on Friday, saw governments, automakers and other stakeholders pledge to move to 100% zero-emission vehicles by 2040 .

On the summit transport day, India stressed the need to shift the country’s large fleet of two and three-wheeled vehicles, which collectively make up over 80% of the country’s automobiles, to zero-emission vehicles.
Currently, the market offers four zero-emission technologies to power vehicles: battery electric vehicles (BEVs), biofuel internal combustion engines, hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) and internal combustion engines. hydrogen (H2-ICE).

While most automakers have already rolled out their BEV models, little progress has been made with biofuel internal combustion engines, as their emissions depend on the supply of biomass and carbon.

Meanwhile, hydrogen car engines – both FCEVs and H2-ICEs – have evolved dramatically over the past few decades.

How does a hydrogen internal combustion engine work?

H2-ICEs are similar to conventional combustion engines and only a few adjustments are made to convert them to run on hydrogen. Some engine components like the fuel system and spark plugs are modified to use hydrogen instead of gasoline or diesel.

As far as emissions are concerned, most of these vehicles emit only water vapor, but they are not zero emission engines as the combustion process in H2-ICE leads to the emission of gas. toxic nitrogen oxides (NOx). A tiny amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) is also released due to the combustion of engine oil in such engines. In comparison, FCEVs, which use hydrogen to power the fuel cell, are much cleaner.

Research and development

Last month Toyota tested hydrogen combustion engines in racing cars and said the ultimate goal is to use H2-ICE technology in commercial cars. The technology was tested on a 1.6-liter Toyota Yaris engine for racing.

The H2-ICE motor car finished the race at an average speed of 68 km / h, but had to make 35 pit stops. On average, the car stopped to refuel about every 42 minutes. Of the 24 hours the car was on the racetrack, almost four hours were spent filling. This despite the installation by Toyota of two hydrogen tanks in the rear seat area of ​​the car, which cannot be the case for commercial cars.


Experience has shown the reduced efficiency of hydrogen fuel compared to gasoline. Hydrogen requires a lot more storage than conventional fuels, but stacking more hydrogen tanks in a car would completely eat away at interior space, making the vehicle largely impractical. Thus, an H2-ICE vehicle with an acceptable range of travel is still far from reality.

In addition, the current process of creating hydrogen fuel is not environmentally friendly as it involves the use of fossil fuels, which greatly contributes to CO2 emissions. While hydrogen can also be harnessed using renewable resources, the cost of the process is exorbitant. Thus, H2-ICE vehicles become a counterproductive solution to reduce toxic emissions.

Another obstacle to the widespread use of H2-ICE vehicles is the lack of hydrogen fuel infrastructure. At present, only a few countries have hydrogen filling stations. The cost of installing a hydrogen station is very high in most markets, as these vehicles are not popular in the trade and investing in stations does not make much business sense.

In addition, refueling an H2-ICE vehicle takes longer than in conventional ICE cars. So, while more people are switching to H2-ICE vehicles, hydrogen gas stations are the most likely to witness winding queues. According to one estimate, people may have to wait up to 20 minutes to refuel their H2-ICE vehicle, and not everyone may have that much time to spare. In addition, there is a potential risk of high intensity explosions at hydrogen refueling stations.

Finally, the current H2-ICE technology is not up to the level of BEVs available on the market. Constant developments in lithium-ion battery technology have put electric vehicles on par with conventional fuel-powered cars. Tesla’s success is a shining example in this case.

Can H2-ICE vehicles become a feasible concept?

Experts advocate hydrogen combustion engines for commercial vehicles because they need to run for a set number of hours and have fixed travel points. If a few hydrogen refueling stations are installed on dedicated freight routes, commercial vehicles can transition to H2-ICEs. In fact, heavy machinery specialist JCB is already working on the adoption of hydrogen combustion engines. Likewise, racing cars – which take a fixed route and are operated for a limited time – can also switch to H2-ICEs.

In India, Union Minister of Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari has repeatedly urged the use of hydrogen as an automobile fuel. Recently, the government company GAIL India announced that it will build a 10 MW green hydrogen plant – the largest such plant in the country – within the next 12 to 14 months. In the private sector, Reliance Industries, led by Mukesh Ambani, is also working on technology to lower the cost of green hydrogen.

However, until all of these efforts come to fruition, H2-ICE vehicles will remain a bit far from becoming a viable option for consumers.

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