Fifteen years ago, BMW had still been industriously working on hydrogen-based internal combustion engines. Over the course of eight vehicle generations, the carmaker based in the German state of Bavaria had tried to adapt conventional gasoline engines for efficient, low-emission operation with hydrogen. In 2009, however, BMW halted its efforts. Now, former employees of the corporation are planning to bring about the renaissance of the H2 ICE and develop an upgrade kit, if only for the commercial vehicle segment. H2-international spoke with the manager of Keyou, a young business based in Unterschleißheim near Munich, Germany.
H2-international: Mr. Korn, you used to work on the H2 ICE at BMW. What went through your head when it became clear that the hydrogen engine won’t have a future at your former employer?
Korn: At that point, I had already been involved for over a decade in BMW’s R&D activities and evaluation of different alternative types of engines. There had already been reliable data on battery-electric vehicles, cars with fuel cell engines and ones with hydrogen ICEs that are again being discussed today. Considering these results, I was certainly surprised to learn that development of the engine with the biggest customer ROI would no longer be pursued.
H2-international: What exactly were the reasons for halting development?
Korn: The Hydrogen 7 was developed with the intent to have hydrogen combustion engines approved by the California Air Resources Board as a third zero-emission vehicle technology besides electric and fuel cell engines. I should add that big carmakers are only allowed to sell conventional cars in California if they put a minimum number of zero-emission vehicles or ZEVs on the market as well.
I can clearly remember the immense effort that was invested in the testing stand at the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, the independent testing facility, to even be able to detect the already marginal Hydrogen 7 emissions found in 2008. They measured a NOX value of 1 percent of today’s Euro 6 threshold limit. All carbon-containing emissions were at the detection threshold. Despite these impressive results – the vehicle was indeed a good method to clean the air in inner cities – CARB decided not to accept vehicles with hydrogen engines as a third ZEV category. This decision made electric vehicles the go-to technology. Development resources were channeled into electric transportation and the hydrogen ICE was no longer an R&D goal at BMW.
H2-international: Please give us a quick insight into the extent of your work at BMW. The Hydrogen 7 had already been equipped with a bivalent 12-cylinder internal combustion engine adapted for hydrogen use, correct?
Korn: The Hydrogen 7 was only a small step away from becoming a commercially viable product. Long lifetime and reliability are key characteristics of vehicles with hydrogen ICEs. However, a vast part of the potential of hydrogen combustion with respect to power density and fuel consumption had not been tapped yet.
H2-international: I can still remember when we ran into each other ten years ago at Hannover Messe and started talking about adapting gasoline engines for hydrogen use. Sometime thereafter, you founded your own business, Alset Global, with the aim of developing an upgrade kit. What were you plans back then?
Korn: Alset was a startup in Austria, a country that had given serious consideration to hydrogen dual-fuel use. It’s an interesting approach to reduce the effort of upgrading conventional ICEs.
H2-international: On May 19, 2013, you presented your technology as part of an Aston Martin Rapide S during the 24-hour race on the Nürburgring (see HZwei issue from July 2013). After that, Alset disappeared from the headlines. What happened?
Korn: Adapting the Aston Martin for hydrogen use was a great challenge and a really fun project. Back then, I was in charge of development, but not involved in other business areas. This makes it difficult for me to determine what went wrong.
HZwei: Now, you’re starting all over again. What are your goals this time?
Korn: To develop a mass-market, zero-emission engine that offers customers benefits comparable to conventional vehicles at competitive pricing – meaning a real alternative to gasoline and diesel vehicles and an opportunity for the rapid deployment of many emission-free vehicles.
HZwei: You’ve said that Keyou had expertise on catalysts, H2 injection systems and hydrogen storage. It would seem as if you were able to save a lot of the know-how gained during Alset times.
Korn: You learn new things with every new job. I worked at BMW for 13 years and four years at Alset. Our current technical design, however, has no longer anything to do with the previous ones at both businesses, but represents a new and innovative approach.
HZwei: And you can, in fact, use this kit to upgrade gasoline and diesel engines?
Korn: Our technologies allow us to adapt diesel engines for hydrogen gas use. We are currently focused on developing units for vehicles with 200 kW and more. Upgrading natural gas engines is less troublesome; gasoline ones don’t play a role on the commercial vehicle market. However, the design is scalable and could be applied to them in time. A different output range, however, would require a redesign of upgrade components.
HZwei: Is it all but wishful thinking that a prototype could already be available in late 2017, or are there any binding agreements?
Korn: We will test the first engine this May. In late 2017, we will unveil the first prototype of a bus equipped with Keyou Inside technology. The bus that is going to be used is parked outside.
HZwei: Do you intend to develop these “conversion kits” entirely on your own or are you still looking for business partners to develop the technology?
Korn: We are collaborating with many partners, but see to it that the specific hydrogen know-how stays with the company.
HZwei: Whose backing do you have? Who is providing financial support?
Korn: The Nagel Group, a successful German-based machinery and equipment manufacturer, took over the entire first financing round. We are currently in talks with other interested investors.