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Building a hydrogen future

Lord Bamford, Chairman, JCB.

“Having a leader with an entrepreneurial mindset gave JCB engineers the confidence to develop a new world first technology.”

The construction industry needs to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels if the UK is to meet the 2050 net zero target. Realising the importance of zero carbon technologies, in July 2020, JCB started designing an engine for a digger than runs solely on hydrogen. By December that year they had a working prototype of the construction industry’s first ever hydrogen powered engine.

JCB hydrogen-powered construction vehicle.
JCB hydrogen-powered construction vehicle.

Countries are increasingly in need of low carbon construction as the world’s population continues to grow. To meet this demand, JCB recognised that they needed to utilise zero carbon technologies. Current electric construction machines, whilst better for the environment, are unsuitable in an isolated setting due to the limitations of battery charging infrastructure. Realising an alternative energy source to batteries was required, JCB began experimenting with the use of hydrogen.

Hydrogen fuel-cell technology was initially investigated. However, fuel cells are expensive and easily impaired by dust and volatile organic compounds found in tar and paint, making them impractical for use in construction. Knowing that customers wanted a machine that acted no differently to those already in production, Lord Bamford challenged the team to design an engine running purely on hydrogen gas.

A major challenge was re-designing and re-engineering the combustion process to use hydrogen efficiently and cleanly. Unlike petrol and diesel, hydrogen combustion operates at much lower temperatures and pressures making it unsuitable for use in traditional fuel engines. JCB collaborated with universities on engine design and, through a series of computer modelling iterations, perfected the mixing of air and hydrogen for consistent combustion. Customised spark plugs were then deployed to ignite the mixture. The result is a combustion engine designed from first principles running solely off compressed hydrogen gas. It is refuelled in the same way as a traditional engine, but instead emits only steam.

Diggers powered by hydrogen combustion engines are designed to be affordable products which can be adopted quickly in existing construction sites across the globe. As customer confidence in the use of hydrogen gradually increases, the next challenge will be manufacturing enough sustainably produced hydrogen to meet global demand.

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