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.
Should the research effort – which is known as Project Zeus – prove successful, the fuel cell technology would most likely be ready for production use around the time of the next-generation Range Rover Evoque’s arrival in the middle of the 2020s and then be used for zero-emissions versions of larger models in the future.
The British firm 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.
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.
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 €400 [£364] 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.
The three hydrogen tanks in today’s Mirai weigh 87kg and offer a range of 312 miles from 5kg of gas. In stark contrast, the battery-electric Tesla Model S Long Range offers a best-conditions range of 320 miles from a 95kWh battery that weighs around 540kg.
This disparity demonstrates the huge weight advantage that hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles 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 per kWh, a 95kWh battery pack is likely to have a factory cost in the region of £11,000.
Even Faurecia’s limited-production-run (circa 30,000 per year) thermoplastic hydrogen tanks would cost just £1820 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.