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While many automotive parts suppliers rely on electric mobility, one of them is developing an emission-free hydrogen combustion engine. The idea is not entirely new. What is new is that the startup Keyou wants to concentrate on the commercial vehicle sector when entering the market.

Thomas Korn, founder, and head of Keyou

Keyou would like to reopen the discussion about engine technology. At the moment, it is too much influenced by electromobility. It is hardly surprising that the young company with its headquarters in Unterschleißheim near Munich wishes for this. The company founders Thomas Korn and Alvaro Sousa were previously employed as engineers at BMW. Korn as a development engineer for hydrogen vehicles.

In the year 2000, Bayerische Motorenwerke experimented with hydrogen cars and brought two models onto the market in very small series. Hydrogen7 followed in 2006 and only 100 copies were produced. A further complication was that there were not enough hydrogen filling stations in Germany. In 2012 the number was 14 and this has now risen to 45 across Germany. TÜV Süd and LBST have counted this number. There can therefore still be no talk of a nationwide distribution.

Hydrogen-powered utility vehicles

For Korn and Sousa, this is no reason to give up their project. Initially, they do not intend to install hydrogen engines in passenger cars, but instead, target public transport and fleet operators in truck distribution. And this calculation could work out.

“We don’t need a nationwide filling station system”, explains Jürgen Nadler, Chief Marketing Officer at Keyou. According to the company’s ideas, refueling is carried out in the central bus depots of the cities or in the depots of the fleet operators. But they have to be equipped first. Nadler calculates that a hydrogen tank filling of a classic 12-meter city bus is sufficient for a distance of approx. 370 kilometers. This means that a hydrogen-powered bus would meet the daily requirements with an average of 280 kilometers in city traffic.

However, in contrast to conventional city buses, which emit around 103 grams of CO² per kilometer according to the environmental authority, the emission balance of a city bus with a hydrogen engine is impressive. Nadler says that tests have proven total freedom from emissions. The reason for this lies in the combination of different processes and technologies that the start-up company has combined. These include a special combustion process, turbocharging, exhaust gas recirculation and much more. Together with atmospheric oxygen, hydrogen burns emission-free to water, since hydrogen contains no carbon.

Hydrogen engine by Keyou

This turns the diesel engine into a hydrogen engine. Compared to natural gas vehicles, hydrogen is free of carbon. This is why no CO² or soot particles are produced during combustion. According to Keyou, the innovative combustion process avoids nitrogen oxides and would significantly undercut even the world’s strictest emissions legislation without exhaust after-treatment. Convinced by this technology, Nagel Maschinen und Werkzeugfabrik GmbH from Baden-Württemberg joined the Bavarian company at the end of 2016 as a strategic investor.

No rare raw materials

In contrast to electric motors, a hydrogen-powered motor gets by with conventional materials. No noble or rare materials are used, as they are necessary for the production of lithium-ion batteries. This would not create any dependencies on raw materials or even production countries. According to Keyou, electric cars also do less well in production than combustion engines. This is mainly due to the batteries for electric cars. Compared to conventional engines, the production process requires twice as much water and raw materials. Researchers, for example from the Institute of Technology, also calculate the emissions for the production of an electric car at 110, while others calculate up to 170 kilograms of CO² per kilowatt-hour of capacity.

The electric car is also not necessarily ahead in terms of emission-free electricity charging. Anyone who assumes that electricity for electric mobility comes only from renewable sources must be careful. In Germany, the term green electricity is not protected by law. It can therefore also be a mix of coal, oil and renewable energy sources. According to the Federal Environment Agency, 527 grams of CO² were emitted for every kilowatt-hour produced in 2016.

The strong car lobby

The arguments of the founders for the hydrogen engine sound plausible if it were not for the car lobby. It is currently strongly focused on electromobility. “We talk to many bus companies, cities, municipalities and vehicle manufacturers. There is great interest in getting involved with this technology. However, there is a lack of political support. Here, we would like more of a technology-open discussion and no one-sided e-support”, Jürgen Nadler sums it up. In addition, the first vehicles with Keyouside technology are planned for 2019/2020. Still, some interested parties do not want to wait.

Photos: Keyou and Pexels