Why hydrogen could offer a future for the combustion engine in some motorsports RaceFans

Under the real threats of drastic, man-made climate change, it can be slightly uncomfortable to be a motor racing fan. Yes, we all know what we love about the sport, but if the smell of petrol in a pit lane excites the senses of motor racing fans, it also has an increasingly guilty association, both for championships only for the manufacturers involved.

There is an obligation to present a cleaner image. Most of the time it points to electrification – but if there was a way to cleanly use combustion fuel, surely it would be irresistible for racing?

This pathway can be hydrogen. There are issues with how hydrogen is generated (mostly from fossil fuels) and there are many questions about whether it could realistically be a fuel for public transport. However, racing series might have the option of using green hydrogen (generated by splitting water with electrolysis) offering the magic combination of a fuel that will run in a roaring engine that could also be burned off. in a way that only generates water as waste.

The most commonly discussed use of hydrogen to power cars is fuel cell technology. Fuel cell vehicles use hydrogen tanks as an alternative to batteries for energy storage, but are otherwise fully electric. They can use the same generators as battery electric vehicles, but the fuel cell provides the power. Instead of recharging the battery, the tanks are filled with hydrogen.

Toyota’s hydrogen Corolla being refueled

A limitation on them, as opposed to battery-powered vehicles, is that the tanks must be very rigidly sturdy. But in a car big enough to accommodate them, like BMW’s fuel-cell X5, range can be impressive. The X5 has two tanks carrying 6kg of hydrogen that provide an estimated range of 311 miles, just 69 miles less than BMW’s top-of-the-line battery car, the iX.

In theory, the refueling time is then very short – just enough to fill the tanks – and the car emits nothing more harmful than, essentially, clean water. Fuel cell stacks are large, consume rare earth elements, and have relatively low output compared to batteries, but the allure of being able to “power” an electric car from a pump is great enough that they are not eliminated from the conversation about future fuels.

BMW has a long history with hydrogen. From 2005 to 2007 it built the Hydrogen 7 which is the only hydrogen combustion production car ever made. At the time of its demise it seemed like a curious experiment whose benefits very few people had enthusiastically viewed and the burning of hydrogen effectively disappeared over the next decade as a concern. for most car manufacturers.

In Japan, backed by government funding to promote hydrogen, Toyota has remained extremely dedicated to the cause. In addition to developing its hydrogen fuel cell cars, including the production Mirai, it has continued to pursue hydrogen combustion as an avenue, including last year adapting a Corolla to burn hydrogen. and racing her in an endurance race.

Toyota converted the Corolla in just three months, from project conception to racing at the 24 Hours of Fuji, which it completed. Although not in the race for victory, the fact that the converted system was able to take on the enormous task of running a one-day race – what any Le Mans team can tell you is far from trivial – is impressive on its own. Particularly because Toyota said the process was relatively simple, effectively only modifying the Corolla’s fuel injection system.

The Corolla has reached the checkered flag on hydrogen

Hydrogen combustion has particular appeal when it comes to converting diesel cars. As diesel becomes less and less of an acceptable fuel, after nearly every automaker was caught up in the particulate emissions scandal that started with the Volkswagen Group in 2017, there are more areas where cars powered by this fuel are effectively prohibited.

This creates a problem, first for anyone who owns one, but also on a larger scale due to the obsolescence of the fleets of cars in circulation. Replacing diesel cars is a necessity for air quality, but the cost of manufacturing replacements also represents significant carbon emissions, beyond the basic financial burden.

Toyota’s chief hydrogen engineer, Naoyuki Sakamoto, told me after the Corolla’s racing debut that the process used on the race car would work effectively for other combustion cars. The Corolla itself, after all, is hardly an extreme racing prototype and so there seems to be genuine hope that it would work as a direct transfer from racing to the road. Toyota has confirmed that it is still looking for equivalence in performance from its hydrogen engine (hydrogen burned as fuel produces considerably less energy than gasoline or diesel), but that overall it is satisfied of the car’s performance.

JCB Hydrogen Burning Excavator

Where it falls down, however, is that hydrogen engines emit nitrogen oxide (NOx) particles above a certain temperature. In some applications, such as JCB’s hydrogen-burning excavators, the solution is simply to run the engines at a lower temperature than would create the problem. However, that obviously won’t work with a race car.

While exhaust emissions and engine particulates are by no means the largest source of CO₂ from racing, knowingly racing in a way that creates particulates is unlikely to be acceptable as a form of racing. completely “clean”.

The underside of a hydrogen-equipped BMW X5 after an explosives test

The other potential issue is security. Hydrogen tanks can certainly be made extremely robust; I was lucky enough to look at an armored X5 that had 24 hand grenades thrown at it from underneath without damaging the tanks when I visited BMW’s Munich home last year. When Pininfarina made a prototype fuel cell GT car, he incorporated the huge, very stiff tanks into the crash structure of the vehicle because they had to be so strong.

It works as a housing solution for the tanks of GT cars and could even in sports car prototypes. However, it would be extremely difficult to install them in the back of a single-seater car. The weight of the tanks – often almost equal to the fuel they contain – would be prohibitively expensive for any category like Formula 1. Hydrogen has never been seriously discussed as an F1 fuel and is unlikely to be. going forward, as even the relatively minor drop in energy density by increasing the proportion of ethanol in the fuel is a challenge for the teams this year.

The additional particle factor would also likely be unacceptable for any series with a significant number of traffic lanes. But for forms of motorsport like endurance racing where races are held remotely and with relatively large vehicles, there may be potential for a hydrogen-burning future.

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Kevin A. Perras