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Big Four join forces on hydrogen

Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha and Suzuki are getting together to research the use of hydrogen as a direct alternative fuel for petrol engines. The Hydrogen Small mobility & Engine technology group (HySE) will look into all practical aspects, to see whether hydrogen can work as a realistic alternative fuel for motorcycles while cars decarbonise through electrification.

The four companies have divided up the jobs between them. Honda will concentrate on model development while Kawasaki will look at auxiliary systems such as fuel supply and tanks. Yamaha will research making refuelling with highly volatile hydrogen a safer process as well as testing hydrogen engines, alongside Kawasaki.

“We are committed to this endeavour,” said Kenji Komatsu, Chairman nominee of HySE, “with a sense of mission to preserve the use of internal combustion engines.”

However, switching from petrol to hydrogen faces big technical challenges. As well as the need for safe refuelling and stronger tanks (to protect the fuel in a crash) hydrogen burns at a different speed to petrol, so engines would need major reworking to use it.

The ultimate obstacle is low efficiency and high cost. Hydrogen as a direct alternative fuel has far higher ‘well to wheel’ costs than battery-electric systems, or a hydrogen fuel cell. A study by management consultants Horvath & Partners found that battery-electric drive trains give 70-80% overall efficiency, hydrogen fuel cells 25-35% and alternative fuels 10-20%. Add in the lack of economies of scale for the motorcycle market, and filling up with hydrogen looks like a very pricey alternative.

Jim Freeman, Chair of the BMF, thinks hydrogen has its uses: “Still early days, when the big 4 cooperate on this level, it seems like they’re serious to me. No mention of Suzuki, I assume they’re included as part of Kawasaki. Hydrogen has always been on a par with nuclear fusion, sounds great on paper, but always seems to be just out of reach in practical terms. I wish them luck. Petrol was expensive in the early ICE era, without massive taxes, so if hydrogen works, let’s worry about the cost then.”

Written by Peter Henshaw

Top image courtesy of Kawasaki