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Internal combustion engines could play a part in decarbonisation – here’s how

Rick Gordon-Brown, EIP

Prime minister Boris Johnson was in attendance as JCB chairman Lord Bamford unveiled a hydrogen-fuelled prototype in London recently (Credit: JCB)
Prime minister Boris Johnson was in attendance as JCB chairman Lord Bamford unveiled a hydrogen-fuelled prototype in London recently (Credit: JCB)

The UK government recently announced that sales of new petrol and diesel lorries will be banned by 2040. While supportive, the UK’s Road Haulage Association says the proposal is unrealistic because alternatives do not exist yet. 

Electric vehicle technologies are considered unsuitable because heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) travel for long periods, have insufficient time for long recharges, and would need higher battery capacities due to their greater weight and journey lengths. Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) can be refuelled quickly but are expensive, and there are also challenges in sourcing battery materials.

These are issues shared by heavy construction and agricultural equipment manufacturers, such as JCB. In a recent Harry’s Garage episode on YouTube, JCB chairman Lord Bamford highlighted that owners of heavy machinery want it to work long shifts to maximise ROI, with minimal interruptions for refuelling. 

Weight and cost are also issues – JCB predict that battery costs will not come down any time soon. Moreover, converting a 20-tonne excavator to a battery electric vehicle (BEV) would increase its weight by over 40%, so many components would have to be upgraded, leading to a machine costing double the diesel equivalent. FCEVs are proving more expensive still. 

Combustion with a difference

JCB’s solution is an internal combustion engine (ICE) – with a difference. Instead of petrol or diesel, it runs on hydrogen.

“It’s not the combustion engine that’s the problem, it’s the fossil fuels,” said Lord Bamford. 

ICEs are reliable, cheap to manufacture, there are well-established supply chains, and they are well understood by manufacturers, service centres and many customers.

JCB’s engine first ran on a dynamometer in December. It shares the same block as their standard 4.8L diesel unit, but has a new cylinder head to accommodate the move to spark ignition. 

Last month, the firm announced a £100m investment into the engines, recruiting up to 50 more engineers and aiming to sell its first hydrogen-fuelled engines by the end of 2022. 

Diesel competition

A concern with hydrogen ICEs is NOx emissions.  They can run very lean, reducing the cylinder temperature and therefore the generation of NOx, but this reduces flame velocity and power, so a balance is needed.  

Timing also needs consideration. Hydrogen’s high diffusivity provides a more uniform fuel-air mixture, and thus more complete combustion and efficiency, but it could pass through intake valves before they close. 

JCB seem to have overcome these issues and produced a viable ultra-low emission ICE – Lord Bamford says it will ultimately be zero-emission – that delivers the performance demanded by customers. Importantly, the cost will be similar to diesel equivalents, and the tanks can be filled in minutes and supply fuel for a day’s shift without interruption.

Challenges remain

The remaining hurdles, relating primarily to hydrogen supply, appear surmountable.  Hydrogen can be produced by electrolysis of water, for example. Siemens has technology relating to green hydrogen production, and Ryze Hydrogen is building the UK’s first network of green hydrogen production plants, offering storage and distribution.

Although hydrogen ICEs have been known for 200+ years (the world’s first automobile ICE, at the beginning of the 19th century, ran on hydrogen), JCB will have solved numerous technical problems in designing a product for today's world.  Some could be patentable, meaning they could get patent rights for up to 20 years, which could be used to stop other companies from using the technology, or licensed-out for royalty payments.

The licensing market could be substantial, including JCB's competitors and manufacturers of HGVs, buses and coaches.  The technology could be retrofitted in some cases, so patents covering retrofitting could provide further revenue streams.

JCB might also be able to use the UK’s Patent Box scheme to benefit from a reduced 10% corporate tax rate on profits from patented products, as explained on EIP’s Patentise website.

We cannot yet see whether JCB have filed any patent applications.  They are usually published 18 months after being submitted to the patent office. 

Freedom to operate

JCB would be free to commercialise their technology, only if doing so wouldn’t infringe third parties’ patent rights.

Cummins have begun tests in this area and were recently awarded £15m of project funding through the Advanced Propulsion Centre, AVL are working with Westport Fuel Systems and TUPY, and Ricardo have announced they are conducting research.

If third party patent rights cover JCB’s plans, aside from agreeing to license the IP, JCB might be able to use the third party's technology through cross-licensing of both parties’ rights.

What about cars?

Hydrogen ICEs are less efficient than hydrogen fuel cells, so more space is needed for fuel storage.  However, Toyota clearly think this is an area worth exploring, as they recently demonstrated a hydrogen-powered Corolla with a modified GR Yaris ICE.  

In a recent interview, Formula One managing director Ross Brawn also suggested that hydrogen could help F1 become carbon neutral while keeping the familiar noise. 

With so much energy being directed at this technology, a feasible car with a hydrogen ICE could materialise.  Whoever obtains patents relevant to this large market could find they prove very lucrative indeed.

EIP is an IP law firm specialising in high-value patent matters. Rick Gordon-Brown has a background in mechanical engineering and is a partner and patent attorney in their engineering team.


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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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