Japan motorcycle makers revving up on hydrogen

Japan motorcycle makers revving up on hydrogen

Japanese motorcycle makers Kawasaki, Suzuki, Honda and Yamaha will work together to develop hydrogen-powered internal combustion engines for “small mobility.” In addition to motorcycles, that is likely to include various hydrogen-powered mini-vehicles, small marine vessels, construction equipment and drones.

Each company will develop its own final products. Their current product lines give an indication of what those might be in addition to those mentioned above: three- and four-wheeled minicars, all-terrain and off-road vehicles, snowmobiles, jet skis, outboard motors for small boats, golf carts and multi-purpose engines for the likes of lawn mowers and generators.

The four companies announced this week that they had received approval from Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) to form a “Hydrogen Small mobility & Engine technology” (HySE) research association with Kawasaki Heavy Industries (KHI) and Toyota Motor as supporting members.

The association’s R&D efforts will be focused on the functionality, performance and reliability of hydrogen-powered engines and the fueling system, including small hydrogen tanks and related equipment.

Japan’s idea of green

The companies participating in HySE, other Japanese auto companies and the Japanese government favor “a multi-pathway strategy” to move beyond gasoline engines and achieve zero-emission transportation.

They have been relatively slow to embrace battery-powered electric vehicles (EVs), preferring hybrids and continuing to develop alternatives including hydrogen fuel cells and now hydrogen internal combustion engines. For this, they have been harshly criticized by Greenpeace and other decarbonization purists.

In response, Toyota’s chief scientist, Gill Pratt, explains that when it comes to carbon neutrality (the term for having a balance between emitting carbon and absorbing carbon from the atmosphere in carbon sinks), “diversity is strength.”

Pratt has been CEO of Toyota Research Institute (TRI) since 2016. Before that, he spent several years at the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), where he led the Robotics Challenge, Robotics Research and Neuromorphic Computing research programs. He says,

Making a BEV [battery electric vehicle] requires up to six times more critical minerals than a conventional gasoline-powered vehicle. What’s more, while a battery plant can be built in two to three years, a new mine takes 10 to 15 years to be operational. As a result, despite the planet’s abundance of untapped battery minerals, many experts including the IEA [International Energy Agency] forecast a 30-50% shortfall in battery minerals over the next 10-20 years (roughly the lifespan of an automobile).

For this and other reasons, there is room for hybrids and other alternatives, including hydrogen internal combustion engines. When hydrogen is used as a fuel, the only emission is water. There is no potential shortage of lithium or need to recycle batteries.

But whether HySE’s small hydrogen-fueled internal combustion engines will be a commercial success is a separate question.

A hydrogen motorcycle engine. Image: RideApart

Japan’s hydrogen fueling infrastructure is gradually expanding, with about 170 stations built so far and METI targeting 900 by 2030. But if demand for hydrogen-powered vehicles takes off, stations are likely to be added more rapidly. ENEOS, Japan’s largest automobile fuel distributor, operates about 13,000 roadside service stations nationwide.

Earlier this month, the MK taxi company opened a dedicated hydrogen fueling station for its own vehicles in Kobe. The first of its kind, it was converted from liquid petroleum gas (LPG) by Air Liquide. In the next few years, the French industrial gas company plans to build more hydrogen fueling stations for taxis, buses and long-haul trucks around Japan.

The Cummins precedent

The small-mobility applications HySE contemplates are new but the concept is not. US engine maker Cummins announced its investigation of hydrogen internal combustion technology in July 2021, aiming to develop zero-carbon power sources for heavy trucks, excavators, wheel loaders, drilling rigs and industrial equipment.

At the March 2023 CONEXPO construction industry trade show, Cummins exhibited its new fuel-agnostic 15-liter internal combustion engine platform that can be used with hydrogen, natural gas and diesel. The company has reportedly already received orders for hundreds of the hydrogen-fueled version from the trucking industry.

According to Cummins, hydrogen internal combustion engines “are an ideal low cost zero-carbon solution for high load factor and high utilization applications” because “there are applications where battery electric solutions cannot meet the operational requirements and fuel cells are not yet economically viable.”

A hydrogen-fueled engine “fits in today’s trucks, works with today’s transmissions and integrates seamlessly into the industry’s existing service networks and practices.”

Cummins’ General Manager for Hydrogen Engines Jim Nebergall says, “These engines look like engines, they sound like engines and fit where engines normally fit.” They are the easiest way for a trucking company or other organization to introduce zero-carbon engine technology.

For those who would like to know more about how hydrogen engines work, Cummins has provided a tutorial on its website.

Incidentally, in comparison with Cummins heavy-duty 15-liter engine, the Suzuki Swift hybrid minicar has a 1.2-liter gasoline engine. Yamaha Motor’s WaveRunner jet ski has a 1049 cc (1.049-liter) engine.

Tokyo headquarters

Within HySE, KHI will contribute its experience as one of the participants in Japan’s CO2-free “Hydrogen Energy Supply-chain Technology Research Association” (HySTRA). Toyota will contribute know-how from its work on hydrogen-fueled power units for four-wheel vehicles.

HySE will be headquartered in Tokyo with Kenji Komatsu, executive officer of Yamaha Motor’s Technical Research & Development Center, serving as chairman.

Komatsu declared: “We are committed to this endeavor with a sense of mission to preserve the use of internal combustion engines, which epitomize the long-time efforts that our predecessors have invested.”

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