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Hydrogen Motorcycle – The Alternative Alternative?

Kawasaki's hydrogen powered motorcycle

NOT NECESSARILY ELECTRIC – The Hydrogen Motorcycle

Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Yamaha Motor have started considerations toward the joint development of a hydrogen engine for possible use in a hydrogen motorcycle and other two-wheeled vehicles. Sounds a bit tentative but it is a good start.

Like a father with the best intentions, earlier this year the corporate behemoth that is Kawasaki Heavy Industries decided one of its children would benefit from leaving the nest. That child was Kawasaki Motors, the subsidiary building motorcycles, watercraft and ATVs. The logic behind the move was agility. The quasi-independent motorsport division would be more responsive. KHI builds huge cargo ships requiring miles to come to a stop and make a turn and as an analogy that might be good for ships, but it is bad for motorcycles. KHI sells big items planned years ahead of time. Motorsports are its only retail consumer facing segments and therefore subject to fickle desires and decision making processes. 

Set free but still under the eye of KHI, Kawasaki Motors decided they best make a plan. First obvious objective: return of the Kawasaki River Rock logo. Second objective: increase the revenue of the motorsports division dramatically. 

Where does the money come from now? It’s about 30 per cent ATVs and PWCs, 58 per cent motorcycles and 12 per cent lawnmower engines. How much does the company expect to grow in the next nine years? Over double. From revenues of 410 billion Yen to more than one trillion Yen by 2030. That probably involves a measure of wishful thinking but there are some interesting tidbits in that news. 

One is that the slice of the pie representing motorcycles, while not shrinking in revenue dollars, is very likely to decrease in size because Kawasaki thinks ATVs are where the boom will take place. The company’s own estimates suggest the value of the off-road ATV market in North America alone will triple in value from what was sold in 2019 to 2030 and stated the segment is “The most promising area in terms of prospects for market expansion going forward.”

But what about motorcycles? There are some changes. The company plans to concentrate on premium segments where the demand is stable. They aim to introduce 16 new models per year by 2025. That all sounds good but there is another criteria around which company growth is configured and that is carbon neutrality including a stated goal of going electric with all major models for developed markets by 2035. Kawasaki Motors said there will be at least 10 electric motorcycles from the company by 2025. Well, it is almost 2022 and no electric model has been introduced. There was conjecture that Kawasaki would announce a production electric bike at this year’s EICMA but as of this writing that hasn’t happened. 

Hints of Other Futures

Premium electric bikes … in this issue we have already gone over attitudes around that. But tucked into Kawasaki’s press material there are three photos accompanied by this short caption: “Make use of carbon-neutral fuel (hydrogen).” The image is an engine with pistons, crankshaft and four traditional valves per cylinder with the only apparent major change from the engines that we know being nodules spraying hydrogen into the cylinders. A hydrogen powered motorcycle?

kawasaki hydrogen motorcycle engine in cat-away fromNow that is interesting. But it gets more so when you combine it with a less aspirational and slightly more boring release found on the Yamaha global site. We reported in a previous issue that a number of Japanese companies are working together to insure rechargeable and swappable battery packs are a universal design so that all makes can utilize the technology. Among other items, a new Yamaha press release leads with this headline: “Going Beyond Electrification Initiative to Provide Greater Choice for Using Internal Combustion Engines.” 

The players are big and include Yamaha, KHI and Toyota among others. Kawasaki’s impetus for hydrogen comes from Kawasaki Heavy Industries as the parent company has been heavily invested in the alternative energy since 2010. KHI has imminent plans to transport large amounts of liquefied hydrogen aboard a huge tanker they built—the first of its kind in the world. KHI also has experience in hydrogen combustion technologies though building a hydrogen fueled gas turbine power plant in 2018. 

Which leads us back to motorcycles because the companies involved in the partnership are taking all that knowledge and building engines for planes, ships and two-wheeled vehicles. Yamaha was already working on hydrogen engines for its ATVs and motorcycles—hydrogen supplied in the future by a fleet of KHI built super tankers perhaps?

The press release then contains the following paragraph:

Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Yamaha Motor have started considerations toward the joint development of a hydrogen engine for possible use in two-wheeled vehicles. Going forward, they are planned to be joined by Honda Motor Co., Ltd. and Suzuki Motor Corporation, and the four companies intend to jointly explore the possibility of achieving carbon neutrality through the use of internal combustion engines in two-wheeled vehicles. To maintain a distinct line between cooperation and competition, they intend to proceed after establishing a framework that will clearly define areas of cooperation and collaborative research.

That sounds like great news for the the future and the hydrogen motorcycle. The only way that a sea change of technology will take place is by working together on the crucial aspect of making the machines go. Stopping, turning, and suspension can all be individual efforts but to avoid a repeat of the infamous battle of Japanese technology from the 1980s (VHS vs Beta) the sooner everyone is on the same page the better, where energy source is concerned.

Hydrogen fueled motorcycles are already a reality. There is, reportedly, company with a hydrogen motorcycle. The Segway Apex H2 is stated to utilize hydrogen canisters to create electricity via a fuel cell. Which makes the bike more of an electric motorcycle but one that does not require charging. The bike seems almost too good to be true and the details are slim but the company, an arm of  the Chinese robotics firm Ninebot, claims it will be available in 2023 and the price will be somewhere around US $11,000. 

Back in 2017 Suzuki provided seven hydrogen fuel cell Burgman scooters to the London Metropolitan Police Department for a trial in conjunction with Intelligent Energy, a company that had already built a hydrogen powered motorcycle. Even further back Suzuki cooperated with the same company in building its own hydrogen concept bike, the Crosscage. 

But there are always counter arguments for an against the hydrogen motorcycle. Around the world there is much criticism of hydrogen based mobility. The primary one being that it is inefficient. To use hydrogen as a fuel source you must create hydrogen and this is an energy intensive  process that creates emissions depending on the source of energy used to create the hydrogen. The same criticism could be used for battery powered vehicles depending on where and how the electricity is generated. 

Secondly, the most common method of using hydrogen is the fuel cell which converts the hydrogen into electricity to power an electric motor, adding an extra step from simply plugging into the wall and using an electric socket to charge the battery. 

Thirdly, much of today’s hydrogen is created using methane which, as GHGs go, is a real baddie. 

Fourthly, and we’ll stop here, hydrogen stored under high pressure can be, on occasion, explodey. 

But the dream is not new despite the hurdles and the goal of water from tailpipes persists. Way back in the early 2000s there was an ambitious plan to build a hydrogen highway that would stretch from California to British Columbia. The idea was to support hydrogen based mobility by building the infrastructure necessary to refuel such vehicles driving from LA to Vancouver as seamlessly as driving a gas-powered vehicle. 

That dream never came to fruition. But today, if you have the time and patience you could easily drive an electric battery powered car from Whistler to Disneyland. The hydrogen future ceded to the electric reality because it was easier and it didn’t face the horse before the cart problem. To have hydrogen cars you need fueling stations. To have fueling stations you need hydrogen cars to refuel. All electric vehicles need is sockets and time.

Hydrogen in Action

But what if you could just fuel up on hydrogen and go? BMW built a hydrogen fuel ICE 7-series sedan way back in 2005. The company leased 100 of the vehicles to test the possibilities. While BMW is today testing a hydrogen fuel-cell car, the earlier 7-series had a V-12 internal combustion engine that could run on hydrogen or gasoline.

Hydrogen cars haven’t been entirely forgotten in the electric stampede. A 2020 report showed that out of 35 million registered vehicles in California there were about 8,000 hydrogen cars built primarily by Toyota, Honda and Hyundai. There were scant 44 locations to refuel them.  But California isn’t the only place with strong emission restrictions and goal. Other countries with different fuel dependencies and mindsets may well lead the charge on hydrogen power for mobility.

Toyota's hydrogen engine

Toyota has recently built a hydrogen combustion engine for a race car competing in a Japanese series. The reasons go beyond simply the benefits of low to zero emissions. The company states:

Combustion in hydrogen engines occurs at a faster rate than in gasoline engines, resulting in a characteristic of good responsiveness. While having excellent environmental performance, hydrogen engines also have the potential to relay the fun of driving, including through sounds and vibrations.

If it was purely about performance perhaps an electric motor would be faster but as the quote above infers, having a combustion engine with its inherent characteristics is simply more enjoyable. Not perhaps for all, but for the enthusiast.

Kawasaki seems to have slotted into its future an internal combustion engine motorcycle powered by hydrogen with the characteristics we currently love about motorcycles. Yamaha has the same notion about the hydrogen motorcycle and perhaps even Suzuki. This is great news. The future of mobility will require a variety of solutions. Hydrogen powering an internal combustion engine might just be one of those solutions.

Innovators keep coming. There is a company in the US named Remora that has patented a system that filters CO2 from the tail pipe emissions of large diesel trucks. The tech can be retro fitted. They even say money can be made from selling the resulting captured CO2. Yes, the world is full of surprises.

• John Molony Canadian Biker Issue #357




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