Renault knows how to amaze its public. It is famous for the most original and creative concept cars. Now Renault is looking at a hydrogen ICE (internal combustion engine) for a new concept car. This has to be on the top of the list of most original surprises.
I will explain why this is a surprise. The hydrogen option for cars is not very popular because of the low efficiency of hydrogen fuel cell powertrains. From wind turbines or solar panels to the wheels, you get about 22% energy efficiency with a hydrogen fuel cell as used in the Toyota Mirai. In a battery electric vehicle, this is 72%. It’s a bit more for a Tesla, a bit less for my Renault Zoe. This low efficiency is, beside the costs of the hydrogen charging infrastructure, a main reason that hydrogen is not seen as a serious alternative to battery electric powertrains by most observers.
The fuel cell is a new piece of technology that is still in its infancy, and the electric motor that is needed is not really comfortable for carmakers. It is also possible to forego the fuel cell and electric motor powertrain. Hydrogen was used as fuel in engines as long as two centuries ago. That was even before gasoline conquered the transportation world.
Note: Heavy sarcasm follows.
So, Renault created such a concept. The carmaker eliminated the fuel cell that uses 50% of hydrogen’s energy to make electricity. Instead, it burns the hydrogen directly in a normal internal combustion engine. Now the carmaker is back with old tried and trusted technology. The efficiency of the ICE is the same 25% as with burning fossil fuels. This way the well-to-wheel metric reaches a whopping 13% — the same efficiency as for driving on e-fuels produced from wind and solar.
But e-fuels are a lot less sexy than hydrogen. E-fuels are safer and easier to handle. The transport and burning in the engine is the same as gasoline, but the marketing potential is nil, nada, nothing — maybe even negative. And half the world is waiting for hydrogen in cars. They know it is the next big thing after gasoline and diesel. That you need five times the number of wind-turbines or solar panels to drive the same distance with this new (old) technology is a small price for not needing a big battery.
This new hydrogen ICE concept car is nearly as clean as driving on sunshine in a BEV — the hydrogen turns into H2O, no CO2 is produced. The hydrogen is burned at high temperatures, causing just a small problem. It produces the same greenhouse gas NOx as fossil fuel cars, but this is difficult to explain to the public, so it does not count.
There is a risk that this ICE will be blocked from entering urban areas, just like its fossil fuel burning cousins, because of the NOx production. But that would be so unfair — this is the new savior hydrogen that the car industry has been waiting for so long!