Hydrogen | The Saviour of Internal Combustion?

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Yamaha Motor have developed and build a V8 high-performance internal combustion engine, powered by hydrogen. There might not be a bike to put it in yet, but give it time…

Whichever side of the global warming argument you fall on, I think most right-minded people would agree that there are certain things that we, as a society, should try to do to minimise our carbon footprint. Now we all know that forcing everybody to buy an electric car or motorcycle just isn’t feasible today. Nor will it be any time in the next 10 years. But there is an alternative. An alternative that might mean we can eek a few more years out of the internal combustion engine. And Yamaha are working on it. It’s a hydrogen powered engine, and they’ve built a really good one.

Yamaha Motor, according to president Yoshihiro Hidaka, are working towards achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. But they are still passionate about internal combustion engines. About five years ago, Yamaha started developing hydrogen powered engines for cars. At a recent event (November 2021) revealed the fruits of their labours; the hydrogen powered 5.0 litre V8 (based on the engine in the Lexus RC F), with its modified injectors, cylinder heads and intake manifold, makes 450bhp and 540Nm of torque. It’s been tested in a car, and apparently it’s really rather good. Takeshi Yamada from Yamaha R&D said “Everyone who came to test-drive the prototype car would start off somewhat sceptical, but emerged from the car with a big smile on their face. Hydrogen engines have an innately friendly feel that makes them easy to use without resorting to electronic driving aids.”


That’s great news. But obviously a 5.0 litre V8 isn’t really suitable for a bike. If they can nail the tech for an automotive application though, it’ll only be a matter of time before they’re developing them for bikes.

But it is worth remembering that this isn’t a zero emissions solution. A hydrogen powered internal combustion engine is completely different to a hydrogen fuel cell. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles use the principals of electrochemistry to power an electric motor to drive the wheels (in other words, using the energy created during a chemical reaction); generally using oxygen from the atmosphere and compressed hydrogen in an onboard tank.

A hydrogen powered internal combustion engine is totally different; it’s essentially the same as a petrol engine, just with a different fuel system. And whilst burning hydrogen is a lot cleaner than burning petrol (or diesel), it’s not considered ‘zero emissions’. That’s unlike hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, which only emit water and a bit of heat.

Hydrogen doesn’t have any carbon in it; because of that you don’t get all the carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons that you get when you burn a fossil fuel. That’s the stuff that’s clogging up the ozone layer and is responsible for the excessive global warming that we’re experiencing. So hydrogen powered internal combustion engines are clean in that respect. But because the earth’s atmosphere is mostly nitrogen and a lot of oxygen, combusting anything in the air still produces nitrogen oxides (NOx). NOx is nasty stuff, which we can thank for smog clouds as well as acid rain.


There’s another problem, too. Hydrogen isn’t particularly easy to extract from the atmosphere, handle, or store. A molecule of hydrogen is really, really small, so you need to use very good materials to seal it in. If you don’t, and it’s allowed to escape and mix with oxygen, it can potentially go bang.

Whilst I genuinely thing hydrogen powered internal combustion engines are an exciting prospect, I’m not sure if they’re solving the problem entirely. I would say they definitely have a place in the future of motoring, whether it’s bikes, cars, boats or aeroplanes. But I think the problems really have stemmed from the fact that everyone was (and mostly still is) using the same type of fuel, every day. Not only does it mean there’s not enough to go round, it means we’re all putting the same pollutants into the atmosphere. And if we keep doing that, we’ll probably fry the planet.

Let’s face it, it’s highly unlikely that the world will be ‘zero emissions’ in any of our lifetimes. But if there are enough alternative options out there, to create energy without burning fossil fuels, that’ll definitely help the situation. And it’ll mean that when we do need to burn fossil fuels for a particular application, because there’s no viable alternative, we as a planet, are doing enough to offset it.

New fuels

Last November (at the event that Yamaha unveiled the hydrogen engine), Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Subaru Corporation, Toyota Motor Company, Mazda Motor Corporation and Yamaha Motor announced that they’d begin a collaborative research project, exploring different fuel options for internal combustion engines. Because you don’t have to burn fossil fuels to run an engine. Hydrogen, Biofuel and even nitrogen can be used, and that’s just scratching the surface.

So let’s not all be guilt-tripped into buying electric bikes. Let’s have faith in all the really clever people out there that are trying to save the internal combustion engine. All is not lost.


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