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Big Four collaborate on hydrogen future

Suzuki Burgman Scooter

Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has given the green light to its ‘Big Four’ motorcycle manufacturers to form a technological partnership, called the HySE (Hydrogen Small mobility & Engine technology), to research hydrogen-propelled powertrains for small scooters and motorcycles.

Hydrogen has long been considered a key fuel in the drive to reduce emissions by a number of commentators, despite many of the challenges faced when using the gas on a large scale. Hydrogen is the planet’s most abundant chemical element, with scientists suggesting it makes up 75% of the mass of the universe, yet is expensive to produce and store. It is highly combustible but, when burnt, hydrogen reacts with oxygen to create water as a tailpipe emission.

Despite appearing to be an almost perfect fuel on the surface, hydrogen is difficult to store. It is less energy dense and less stable than many other fuels, while the energy used to produce it means that, while tailpipe emissions are zero, it is not a completely clean fuel. It’s a topic which always sparks debate, between parties who see it as the future and those who consider hydrogen to be too impractical and difficult to work with.

Suzuki have dabbled with hydrogen on small powered two wheelers in the past, developing a hydrogen fuel cell powered scooter over a decade ago, and even providing London’s Metropolitan Police force with a fleet of hydrogen powered Burgman scooters for an 18 month trail back in 2017.

But so far hydrogen has yet to be widely adopted. So far, only one commercially available hydrogen fuel cell car is available for public purchase – the Toyota Mirai – but there are currently only 15 hydrogen filling stations across the whole of the UK, making them impractical for most British drivers. Hydrogen powered vans are sold (albeit in small numbers) in mainland Europe, but have yet to make it to the British Isles yet and, despite all the talk, hydrogen has yet to challenge electricity in the alternative fuel stakes.

And on the bike front things continue to move slowly. Little has been heard of Suzuki’s hydrogen Burgman trials in recent years, although Kawasaki has more recently shown a prototype hydrogen engine based on the supercharged H2 four-cylinder unit. Kawasaki’s approach has been to utilise hydrogen as a fuel to power a modified version of an internal combustion engine, as opposed to the more common approach of using a fuel cell to power an electric motor. The advantage of a hydrogen fuel cell over a lithium ion battery is its lighter weight and the ability to replenish as quickly as a traditional petrol tank.

Kawasaki have also shown drawings of a hydrogen powered sports touring prototype, with the traditional panniers used for fuel storage. They have also reportedly trademarked the HySE name, but there’s been no suggestion of a timeline.

The collaboration appears to have each manufacturer focussing on different challenges faced by the adoption of hydrogen. Kawasaki will study the fuel supply systems and tanks, supported by Toyota, while Yamaha will look at refuelling systems specifically for small vehicles. Honda and Suzuki have both committed to various studies, while Kawasaki and Yamaha will provide ‘hands-on research using real hydrogen-powered engines’.

Commenting on the project, Yamaha’s Kenji Komatsu, Chairman nominee of HySE and Executive Officer of Technical Research & Development Center, said: “We are extremely pleased to announce the planned formation of the association. There are many challenges in the development of hydrogen-powered engines, but we hope to see the association’s activities advance the fundamental research in order to meet those challenges. We are committed to this endeavour with a sense of mission to preserve the use of internal combustion engines, which epitomize the long-time efforts that our predecessors have invested.”

This is not the first time the Japanese manufacturers have worked together to develop technology to help with the decarbonisation of small-powered two-wheelers. In 2019 the Big Four set up a consortium to agree a standard for swappable batteries, something which has latterly been adopted by a number of other manufacturers since.

While the theoretical advantages of hydrogen over lithium ion batteries are clear to see for higher performance motorcycles and vehicles designed to travel long distances, it’s less obvious to see the benefits for small commuter and delivery machines where batteries, especially when swappable, offer a very workable alternative to petrol equivalents. It will be interesting to see how the collaboration unfolds over the coming years, especially considering all the work which has been put into developing swappable batteries for the same type of machine.

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