The lubrication challenges of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles

Andrew Goddard, Chairman of VLS

Hot on the heels of the German Association of Vehicle Manufacturer’s concerns about the forthcoming Euro 7 emission regulation essentially outlawing the internal combustion engine vehicle from city centres through legislating for zero emission urban vehicles, in April ACEA the European Association of OEMs,

announced that car makers were open to higher CO2 targets if there was a matching infrastructure ramp-up across the European Union.

Currently the debate about the future of European automotive transport seems to centre on electric vehicles almost to the exclusion of anything else. From governments and OEMs alike, there has been a huge focus on electric vehicles in recent years. For both passenger and commercial vehicles, many see battery-powered electric vehicles as the future of transport and the way to achieving carbon neutrality targets. However, electric vehicles might not be a tenable long-term solution if lithium shortages, limited range and the relatively short lifespan of batteries continues to hamper technological advances for these types of products. Also, the sheer volume of charging infrastructure required, in such a short space of time, means some are investigating other options such as hydrogen. Voices are saying that pure electric might not be the only option.

So, what are the alternatives? For one – hydrogen, and you might be surprised to know that hydrogen fuel, cell technology has been with us for over one hundred years since the 19th Century in fact, first developed by Sir William Grove in 1839. However, the first commercially available fuel cell


powered vehicle to appear was the Hyundai Tucson in 2013, followed by the Toyota Mirai in 2015. Already hundreds of filling stations all over Europe are primed to dispense hydrogen fuel for these vehicles but what are the lubricant challenges to this technology that Toyota calls the future of motoring? Fuel cell or battery powered electric vehicles have totally different fluid requirements to diesel or gasoline-powered internal combustion engines. Lubricants manufacturers have been busy developing fluids to suit electric vehicle needs, catering to the increase in oxidation and the need to dissipate an increase in generated heat around the power units. Hydrogen fuel cell engines require hydrogen and oxygen to react together in a special cell to produce electricity which can then be used within a battery to drive an electric motor.

An alternative to hydrogen fuel cell technology is the use of hydrogen as a fuel to drive vehicles which would require mixing it with air to produce combustion in a near conventional type engine. Hydrogen as a source of fuel, can itself be produced from a variety of domestic resources, including renewable power like solar and wind, as well as natural gas, nuclear power and biomass. Its low ignition energy ensures easy ignition of an ultra-lean mixture with air. But like any fuel solution, it has its drawbacks too with premature ignition and knock.

The combustion process of a hydrogen-fuelled vehicle would produce NOx which would also need to be cleaned by selective catalytic reduction prior to exhaust emission, much as we have at the moment

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