Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) is embarking on a serious hydrogen power research project with the aim of developing fuel cell-powered versions of its larger vehicles.
- Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, making it an ideal fuel for a low-CO2 future
- Hydrogen fuel-cell EVs can be refuelled in minutes, akin to combustion-engined vehicles
- Said to offer longer range than traditional EVs while weighing far less, ideal for the Land Rover range
Should the research effort – knows as Project Zeus – prove successful, the hydrogen fuel cell technology would most likely be ready for production use around the time of the next generation Range Rover Evoque’s arrival midway through the decade and then be used for zero-emissions versions of larger models in the future.
The Tata-owned British brand is currently working on several battery electric vehicles (BEVs) to join the existing Jaguar I-Pace, including a new Jaguar XJ. However, the hydrogen project could give it another powertrain option as the British government’s plan to ban the sale of internal combustion-engined vehicles by 2035 or sooner approaches.
What is the significance of Project Zeus?
Project Zeus was described by JLR product engineering chief Nick Rogers in a recent online event as “really, really important”. He added that the company will soon reveal a driveable hydrogen fuel cell concept car.
“We’re looking for the right propulsion systems – ones that see minimum interference to the environment,” said Rogers.
“With hydrogen, we believe there’s a key place [for it in our line-up]. We’re developing and investing in that, and we’re getting great support to do that.”
While it’s still early days and the focus is on developing the hydrogen powertrain technology, the first concept developed as a result of Project Zeus is likely to be an Evoque-sized SUV.
The technology is being seriously considered for use in JLR’s large vehicles in the future – particularly within the Land Rover range. The Range Rover, Range Rover Sport and Range Rover Velar would all be natural choices for hydrogen power, given their large size and need for a long range and flexible usage.
Hydrogen power could also be a strong option in regions and countries with limited BEV charging infrastructures where rugged off-roaders are popular.
While Jaguar could also use the technology for its future models, possibly including the next-generation F-Pace SUV, it’s likely to focus on battery-electric propulsion, given its cars’ generally smaller size and greater road bias than Land Rovers.
Why are companies so interested in hydrogen all of a sudden?
JLR’s entry into hydrogen research comes as there’s a huge resurgence of interest and investment in the fuel, with numerous projects to manufacture ‘green’ hydrogen being announced across Europe in the past few months.
Notably, JLR’s plans are similar to those of BMW, which is planning to put an X5-based i-Hydrogen Next SUV (which would rival JLR’s Evoque-sized hydrogen model) into limited production in 2022, with plans to follow it with larger hydrogen models based on the X6 and X7.
JLR hired Ralph Clague as its new hydrogen and fuel cells chief in March 2019. Clague had been director of fuel cell research and development at Chinese manufacturer Great Wall since 2016.
The timeframe for the start of proposed bans on new combustion-engined car sales in a number of countries, such as the UK, means JLR has no choice but to start now on a new zero-emissions strategy. This is particularly key for JLR, because most of its output is larger, heavier luxury vehicles, which are challenging to reinvent as battery-electric vehicles, given their weight and longer range requirements.
Rogers said: “Hydrogen is an ideal application for the bigger vehicles [in our line-up], because the bigger the car, you get diminishing returns [when using] battery packs. The amount of energy you can store in a battery for a given amount of weight means you’re in a position where you’re making the cars that are so heavy, they’re using [a lot] of energy just to cart that heavy weight about.”
Is hydrogen production carbon neural?
Much of the world’s hydrogen production is currently achieved by extracting it from natural gas, a process known as reforming. This can’t be regarded as ‘zero-carbon’, because the hydrogen comes from fossil fuels.
However, hydrogen can also be created by using renewable electricity (from wind turbines, for example) to ‘crack’ seawater into hydrogen and oxygen through a process called electrolysis.
How much does hydrogen production cost?
According to recent research by London-based forecasting specialist IHS Markit, “costs for producing green hydrogen have fallen by 50 percent since 2015 and could be reduced by an additional 30 percent by 2025, due to the benefits of increased scale and more standardised manufacturing, among other factors”.
IHS Markit also noted that investment in hydrogen cracking is set to expand massively over the next few years, saying: “Economies of scale are a primary driver for green hydrogen’s growing cost competitiveness. The average size for ‘power-to-x’ projects scheduled for 2023 is 100MW – 10 times the capacity of the largest project in operation today.”
Why the sudden shift from battery EVs to fuel-cell EVs?
There are a number of reasons why hydrogen is now receiving massive interest as a zero-carbon fuel.
Despite all the faith laid in the improvement in EV battery power and storage, there has been a rapid shift in thinking across governments.
“In Europe, it’s now widely agreed that electrification alone can’t deliver the level of emissions reduction that many countries aspire to,” said IHS Markit’s Catherine Robinson.
With a typical hydrogen fuel cell vehicle carrying around 5kg of gas, that would suggest a production cost of around €7.50 [Rs. 660] to fill the hydrogen tank in the Toyota Mirai sold today. Even factoring in transportation costs and producer profits, that makes renewably sourced hydrogen power look cost-competitive during the next decade.
Moreover, authorities have realised that CO2-free heavy goods transport, including trains and shipping, can’t be achieved with battery-electric technology. Providing a hydrogen refuelling network for commercial vehicles would, of course, enable hydrogen passenger cars to flourish too.
A major sticking point for hydrogen has also been the economies of scale of production, reflected in the high cost of the few hydrogen fuel cell EVs available, such as the Mirai and Hyundai Nexo sold internationally. Greater commercial vehicle use could help to reduce that cost.
Can hydrogen be stored in an ordinary fuel tank?
Crucially, the issue of hydrogen storage in vehicles is also close to being solved. Currently, hydrogen has to be stored expensively at great pressure, and that requires relatively costly filament-wound tanks that are very hard to package inside a car.
A team of researchers and scientists at Northwestern University in the US have developed a new material, described as a ‘metallic organic framework’, that will allow much greater volumes of hydrogen gas to be stored in a given space and, importantly, at a much lower pressure. The material is described as working like a sponge, able to soak up the gas and then release it under pressure.
This technology could lead to hydrogen tanks fitting in the same space as today’s underfloor battery packs, making the technology an ideal retrofit into JLR’s upcoming MLA multi-fuel car platform.
Compact hydrogen tanks are also being developed in Germany, while French parts supplier Faurecia is working on new thermoplastic hydrogen storage tanks that should have a factory cost of around €400 [Rs. 35,350] per kilogram of gas stored.
There are also significant engineering reasons of weight and cost that might mean hydrogen fuel cell technology will win out over battery-electric powertrains, certainly for larger vehicles at least.
But today’s EVs have good range, too
The three hydrogen tanks in today’s Mirai weigh 87kg and offer a range of 502km from 5kg of gas. In stark contrast, the battery-electric Tesla Model S Long Range offers a best-conditions range of 515km from a 95kWh battery that weighs around 540kg.
This disparity demonstrates the huge weight advantage that hydrogen fuel cell EVs could have over BEVs, even with the addition of a fuel cell stack and small battery.
With current EV battery production costs at around £118 [Rs. 11,500] per kWh, a 95kWh battery pack is likely to have a factory cost in the region of £11,000 [Rs. 10.75 lakh].
Even Faurecia’s limited-production-run (circa 30,000 per year) thermoplastic hydrogen tanks would cost just £1820 [Rs. 1.78 lakh] for a similar range.
Once seen as a dead end, hydrogen fuel cell technology could actually be the winner of the race to decarbonise the automotive industry, especially with the potential geopolitical and ethical trouble ahead for EV battery supply.