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Groundbreaking thinking for groundbreaking equipment – a zero carbon solution

The Diecasting Society (DCS) members were privileged to get an insight into (quite literally) groundbreaking patented technology when they visited the JCB engine plant at the company’s dedicated facility in Derbyshire (UK) in July.

The pioneering one hundred-million-pound initiative to develop super-efficient hydrogen combustion engines is JCB’s zero carbon emissions solution for construction and agricultural equipment. The chance to visit the facility and witness first-hand how the technology is progressing was too good an opportunity for DCS members to miss.

Providing a detailed presentation, the unveiling of the engine for closer inspection by the group and a factory tour, principal engineer for J C Bamford Excavators Ltd, Tom Beamish, explained the rationale behind the project. “We considered electric for some time but electric only gains some savings, we need carbon free fuel to get to zero emissions. This is part of our efficiency drive to provide customers with more cost-effective machines and less fuel costs, having scrutinised existing machines to identify all the wastage in machine systems.”

Beamish explained that the thinking behind the move to hydrogen was born out of trials with other technologies. JCB’s commitment to reducing emissions goes back almost 25 years and the latest diesel engines are designed to comply with European Stage V regulations have already delivered a 97 per cent reduction in NOx emissions since 1999 and a 98 per cent reduction in particulates. In addition, JCB’s drive to reduce fuel consumption means today’s JCB machines use fifty per cent less fuel on average than those manufactured more than a decade ago. This has saved sixteen billion litres of fuel – equivalent to 53 million tonnes of CO2.

The company has also been at the forefront of electric technology development to meet customers’ demands for zero carbon products. However, while battery electric is suitable for smaller machines which do fewer hours and typically use less fuel, larger machines have a higher energy requirement. This would result in larger batteries, which would take longer to charge, making them less suitable for machines which work multiple daily shifts and do not have the available downtime to recharge.

As a result, JCB has concentrated its development of electric machines on its compact range, including the 525-60E Loadall telehandler and the 19C-1E mini excavator – the world’s first electric mini excavator. As the company examines future fuels which deliver zero emissions, it has considered a range of possibilities. In its search for a mobile fuel which can be taken to the machine, ensuring maximum uptime and fast refuelling, HVO, biogas, E-fuels, ammonia, and hydrogen have all come under the microscope. Interestingly, JCB engines have been approved for use with HVO since Stage IIIB/Tier 4i engine legislation came into force.

As many alternative fuels require the production of hydrogen to make, it became clear that using hydrogen in the first place made sense as it is a clean zero carbon fuel which can be produced from renewable energy. As part of its hydrogen development, JCB also investigated its use in fuel cells and in July 2020 unveiled the construction industry’s first ever hydrogen powered excavator – a 20-tonne 220X. Beamish explained that, following several trials, JCB concluded that fuel cells are too expensive, too complicated and not robust enough for construction and agricultural equipment. The answer therefore became clear.

Prototype JCB hydrogen engines are already powering backhoe loaders and Loadall telescopic handlers. JCB has also made a breakthrough in proving the wider appeal of hydrogen combustion technology by installing one of the super-efficient hydrogen engines into a 7.5 tonne Mercedes truck – a retrofit which was completed in just days. JCB has also unveiled its very own designed and built mobile refuelling bowser to take the fuel to the machines remotely wherever they are being used. The bowser has enough hydrogen gas to fill sixteen hydrogen backhoe loaders and can be transported either on the back of a modified JCB Fastrac tractor or on a trailer.

Same power, same torque – zero carbon, zero compromise

Using and adapting established engine technology with readily available components, hydrogen is combusted, and power is delivered in the same way as a diesel engine. Thus, the prototype backhoe loader, fitted with the new hydrogen motor, can do everything its diesel-powered equivalent can do. The technology is also less complicated than hydrogen fuel cell technology. Nothing but steam is emitted from the tailpipe resulting in zero CO2 at point of use.

The new hydrogen engine is constructed using the same diesel engine architecture; thus, it still fits in the same machine and is the same weight. The additions are hydrogen tanks and a refuelling point. They can also be built on the existing three engine production lines offering another advantage for the company.

JCB developed their first hydrogen engine in just six months and Beamish said the next stage will be production scale up. The plan is for the engines to go to market at the beginning of 2024 with the most pressing barrier to overcome being availability of hydrogen.

Beamish was clear that this is “brand new technology and not a conversion,” so there are some ongoing challenges such as: air compression, spark ignition and steam management – all areas that JCB engineers are working to solve.

The initiative is being driven from the top. JCB chairman Anthony Bamford is leading the project. In a statement, Lord Bamford said: “The JCB engineering team has made enormous strides in a short space of time to develop a hydrogen internal combustion engine. The team has gone back to first principles to completely re-design the combustion process to work for hydrogen. In doing so they have achieved two major things: secured JCB’s place in history as the first construction equipment company to develop a fully working combustion engine fuelled by hydrogen and steered us towards the production of a landmark fifty hydrogen combustion engines.

“The unique combustion properties of hydrogen enable the hydrogen engine to deliver the same power, the same torque, and the same efficiency that powers JCB machines today, but in a zero carbon way. Hydrogen combustion engines also offer other significant benefits. By leveraging diesel engine technology and components, they do not require rare earth elements and critically, combustion technology is already well proven on construction and agricultural equipment. It is a technology which is cost effective, robust, reliable and well-known throughout not just the construction and agricultural industry, but the whole world.”

The DCS thanks JCB for this exceptional visit.