Billions go on schemes that barely make a difference, writes JCB boss

Billions go on schemes that barely make a difference, writes JCB boss

How I dug up a truly green energy dream: Billions go on schemes that barely make a difference, yet so little is spent researching hydrogen engines that effectively run on water, writes JCB boss LORD BAMFORD

  • JCB is developing a chemical alternative to fossil fuels to help solve energy crisis
  • In July 2020, engineers began designing a digger engine that runs on hydrogen 
  • Last month, the working prototype was shown to Prime Minister Boris Johnson 

My chemistry teacher would be astonished. After all, despite his best efforts, I failed my O-level. 

But now, 60 years later, my company JCB is developing a chemical alternative to fossil fuels which might yet help to solve the energy crisis — and enable the UK to meet its ambitious goal of cutting our net carbon emissions to zero by 2050.

And the solution is all around us. It’s in our water — or H2O, as my chemistry teacher would say.

Just 16 months ago, in July 2020, a team of JCB engineers set to work designing an engine for a digger that runs entirely on hydrogen. By December, the first working prototype was being tested.

And last month, I demonstrated the result to the Prime Minister.

It’s worth pointing out the digger is not in commercial production. It’s a work-in-progress. But I intend to have it with customers by this time next year.

JCB is developing a chemical alternative to fossil fuels which might help to solve the energy crisis. Pictured: Boris Johnson fills up a hydrogen-fuelled JCB machine with Lord Bamford

Attempts to produce hydrogen engines by others in the past have been unsuccessful because manufacturers simply tried to convert petrol engines, which unfortunately continued to produce harmful oxides of nitrogen.

Through experimentation, however, my team has managed to develop a high-performance, purpose-engineered zero-CO2 hydrogen fuel motor, which just emits steam from the tail-pipe (but more on how engines work later).

And it’s meant that I am now convinced hydrogen, more so than electric battery power, holds the key to bringing our global climate crisis under control. 

And yes, we can keep driving, keep building, keep flying, keep heating our homes — all without pumping any carbon dioxide or other toxic emissions into the atmosphere.

It is perhaps no exaggeration to say the hydrogen engine could turn out to be the most important invention of the 21st century.

More than that, we do not actually have to invent a whole new range of technologies to do it. For hydrogen engines work on the internal combustion principle, and will feel familiar to anyone who is used to petrol or diesel engines.

Another major advantage is their cost — roughly the same as traditional engines running on fossil fuels. 

Hydrogen engines will be far more affordable than electric alternatives, which are costly, unwieldy and difficult to recycle.

Quite simply, this could be a revolution in the making — and one that could propel Britain to the forefront of global energy production.

When the concept was first explained to me, I couldn’t quite believe the potential. So I certainly don’t blame anyone who is sceptical. But now it is crucial we persuade our politicians to study the advantages that hydrogen can offer.

It can heat our homes, fuel our cars, our trains, our vans, and light our cities.

Admittedly, none of that was in my mind when I gave the go-ahead for my team to develop the first prototype.

Through experimentation, my team has managed to develop a high-performance, purpose-engineered zero-CO2 hydrogen fuel motor, which just emits steam from the tail-pipe

I had a business problem to solve first.

JCB manufactures diesel engines. We are currently producing 400 a day for our range of farming and building machinery.

But with the Government’s commitment to end the use of diesel and petrol in cars, it became clear that we needed to look at alternative means of powering our machines.

For our industry, however, batteries are not the answer.

If the construction and agriculture industries were forced to rely on battery power for large machines, they would be reduced to a stop-start rhythm that is completely unviable.

It’s not clear how recharging could even be possible for large machines in the middle of a field. It is also certainly impractical and probably unsafe to run an electrical cable across a building site every time the crew need to recharge a 30-tonne machine.

In addition, a battery big enough to power heavy machinery needs to be massive. Which makes it very weighty and very expensive.

Even the batteries for a family car take up most of the wheelbase, filling a space the size of a king-size mattress. That’s why electric cars are so heavy. And it’s also why they are so costly.

So, batteries are only suitable for small machinery.

JCB does produce a small digger, a two-tonne mini-excavator, which is available in an electric model. The diesel version costs about £18,000. The battery model £32,000.

We are not making any more money from the electric model, even though it’s £14,000 more expensive. That hugely inflated price tag is solely due to the cost of its four batteries.

And it is painfully obvious that automobile manufacturers are already facing the same dilemma. A modest family hatchback such as the Vauxhall Corsa is roughly £15,500 for the cheapest petrol model — but over ten grand more, at £26,500, for the electric version.

That’s a colossal cost to be passing on to the motorist. And I am concerned that many people will simply be unable to afford electric cars.

Even those who are able to buy one will be dismayed by the maintenance costs of things such as wear on brakes, tyres and other parts, due to the greater weight.

I firmly believe we’ve been mesmerised by Musk — that is Tesla CEO Elon Musk and his vision of an all-electric future.

We have to start being more realistic and offer up practical real-world solutions to the problems we face.

For instance, for an engineer who is used to petrol or diesel motors to re-train on electric models means forgetting much of what they know and starting from scratch. The logistical problems would be colossal, especially in the developing world.

Hydrogen engines, however, solve all those problems.

And the beauty is that they work on the same internal combustion principle as petrol and diesel. They have pistons and spark plugs — and can have manual or automatic gearboxes, too.

Only, instead of liquid petrol or diesel as fuel, hydrogen gas is mixed with air inside the engine chamber, at which point a spark plug ignites the mixture. 

In July 2020, JCB engineers set to work designing an engine for a digger that runs entirely on hydrogen. And last month, I demonstrated the result to the Prime Minister (pictured)

This is the moment of combustion, which drives down the pistons, creating the power to make a machine move and do its work.

And so, any experienced engineer will quickly be able to get to grips with this new, but familiar, technology. Hydrogen tech will work for vans and trucks, for combine harvesters, for trains and just about any other kind of heavy machinery you can imagine.

And this is not pie-in-the-sky — it’s already here.

Last month, I was delighted to show Boris Johnson our new hydrogen-powered loaders, ahead of their appearance at the Cop26 climate-change summit in Glasgow, which started on Sunday.

Being Boris, he was more than happy to have a go at refuelling the machine, which only takes a matter of minutes, just like filling up your car.

But it will take more than a photo opportunity to convince the Government that this is the best solution to the climate crisis.

The Government’s Net Zero Strategy, which was published last month, offered a broad range of potential strategies. 

As well as a £1 billion commitment to backing electric vehicles, there’s £180 million in funding for sustainable aviation fuel and £1.5 billion for research into technologies for decarbonising our homes and industries.

There is also £385 million for an Advanced Nuclear Fund. However, hydrogen combustion engines get just a glancing reference.

While I welcome the brief mention in the document, I firmly believe that hydrogen engines need to move centre stage in the Net Zero Strategy. Other green strategies will not be enough. And we cannot ignore the one solution that might be our simplest and cleanest hope yet.

And it is a solution that the Royal Automobile Club has recognised, having yesterday awarded JCB its prestigious Dewar Trophy for technical achievement. 

And if the Government doubts that hydrogen could be immeasurably better than battery power, think about this: fuel tax is currently worth tens of billions a year to the Exchequer.

If, somehow, we all switch to charging our cars with mains electricity, the Government will lose that income. If, on the other hand, we switch to hydrogen combustion, a replacement source of taxable energy becomes easily available.

Incidentally, I’m not alone in thinking that hydrogen engines could be the answer.

Last week, Japanese carmaker Toyota confirmed that it, too, was testing hydrogen combustion technology in race cars as it works towards using hydrogen engines in future commercial products.

Toyota already manufactures hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, which are gaining in popularity (especially in Japan, with its established hydrogen fuel cell bus network) and which are essentially electric vehicles using hydrogen to generate the electricity to power its motors.

They are, however, like other electric vehicles, very expensive — and their highly technical, sensitive components render them impractical for large machinery.

Hydrogen combustion overcomes those problems. And the fact Toyota’s thinking is now moving beyond hydrogen fuel cells to hydrogen engines is significant.

Green hydrogen production requires just two things: electricity and water.

A process known as electrolysis separates the hydrogen molecules from the oxygen.

The electricity required for the process can be generated by solar or wind power, for example by wind farms working at night. 

Since electricity is difficult to store, much of the power generated by wind energy after dark or during the weekend currently goes unused — so harnessing it for green hydrogen production makes excellent economic sense.

Admittedly, at the moment we generate just a tiny fraction of the amount of hydrogen we would need to fuel the world’s vehicles and machinery, heat its homes and power its industry.

Hydrogen engines will be far more affordable than electric alternatives, which are costly, unwieldy and difficult to recycle. Pictured: Mr Johnson and Lord Bamford 

But the potential is there. Indeed, we have the ability to produce infinite amounts of hydrogen if required.

It could be easily generated in those countries of the Middle East that have benefited hugely from oil production — because they also have limitless sunshine, which could be used for the solar-powered electricity that can be diverted into electrolysing plants.

This could be a powerful incentive for nations such as Saudi Arabia to turn away from oil production. Morocco has already invested heavily in solar power and might lead the way.

Of course, I want to see Britain at the forefront of the hydrogen revolution. It will require great reservoirs of water… and that’s something we have plenty of.

In the meantime, to get the ball rolling on green hydrogen in this country, we will need to import it from overseas.

Earlier this week, I was delighted that JCB, in partnership with Ryze Hydrogen — a hydrogen production and distribution firm owned by my son, Jo Bamford — reached an agreement with Australia’s Fortescue Future Industries, to buy 10 per cent of their global green hydrogen production for use in the UK.

This really is a major advance on the road towards making green hydrogen a viable solution.

The transportation of hydrogen should not present insurmountable problems either. Transforming hydrogen gas into a liquid might not be entirely straightforward, as it has to be cooled to around minus 253c. 

However, once in liquid form, it can be readily stored and easily transported in bulk.

Crucially, though, it can also be converted into ammonia, with the addition of nitrogen. Ammonia is easy to transport. And after shipping, it is easily changed back into pure hydrogen, in a process known as cracking.

The gas itself can also be piped through existing natural gas channels and could even fuel ordinary central heating systems with a few adjustments — no need for hugely expensive, ineffective heat pumps.

And, with the correct infrastructure in place, green hydrogen gas could easily be transported from electrolysis plants in tankers to refuelling stations for our nation’s vehicles.

Not all hydrogen production is currently clean though. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There is unlimited potential for using solar or wind-powered electricity going forward.

Several geologists also say it’s highly possible that reserves of pure gas, dubbed ‘gold hydrogen’, are trapped in the Earth’s crust, ready to be extracted.

So, what are we waiting for?

You might well be thinking this is all too good to be true. The sheer elegance of the idea, too ‘easy’ a solution.

But actually, it’s really just an opportunity too good to miss.

Climate change may be the biggest problem humanity has ever faced — but hydrogen engines could well be mankind’s greatest solution yet.

Anthony Bamford has been chairman of JCB since 1975.

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