Currently reading: Jaguar Land Rover to test fuel cell powertrains within the year
New Reimagine strategy reinforces company commitment to hydrogen; fuel-cell Range Rover could launch later this decade
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7 mins read
15 February 2021

Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) has confirmed that fuel cell powertrain development forms a core part of its bold new 'Reimagine' transformation strategy, and will begin road testing prototypes within the next 12 months. 

Last year, the company detailed its Project Zeus initiative: a serious hydrogen power research project with the aim of developing fuel cell-powered versions of its larger vehicles. It has now reinforced that ambition to prepare itself for "the expected adoption of clean fuel-cell power in line with a maturing of the hydrogen economy". 

Should the research effort – which is known as Project Zeus – prove successful, the fuel cell technology would most likely be ready for production use around the time of the next-generation Range Rover Evoque’s arrival in the middle of the 2020s and then be used for zero-emissions versions of larger models in the future.

The Reimagine plan, detailed today, will see Jaguar and Land Rover use separate, bespoke EV architectures for their upcoming models, with Jaguar set to go EV-only from 2025. However, the hydrogen project could give it another powertrain option as the British government’s plan to ban the sale of internal combustion-engined vehicles by 2030 approaches.

Project Zeus was described by JLR product engineering chief Nick Rogers as “really, really important”. He added that the company will soon reveal a driveable hydrogen fuel cell concept car.

“We’re looking for the right propulsion systems – ones that see minimum interference to the environment,” said Rogers.

“With hydrogen, we believe there’s a key place [for it in our line-up]. We’re developing and investing in that, and we’re getting great support to do that.”

While it’s still early days and the focus is on developing the hydrogen powertrain technology, the first concept developed as a result of Project Zeus is likely to be an Evoque-sized SUV.

The technology is being seriously considered for use in JLR’s large vehicles in the future – particularly within the Land Rover range. The Range Rover, Range Rover Sport and Range Rover Velar would all be natural choices for hydrogen power, given their large size and need for a long range and flexible usage.

Hydrogen power could also be a strong option in regions and countries with limited BEV charging infrastructures where rugged off-roaders are popular.

While Jaguar could also use the technology for its future models, it’s likely to focus on battery-electric propulsion, given its cars’ generally smaller size and greater road bias than Land Rovers.

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Notably, JLR’s plans are similar to those of BMW, which is planning to put an X5-based i Hydrogen Next SUV (which would rival JLR’s Evoque-sized hydrogen model) into limited production in 2022, with plans to follow it with larger hydrogen models based on the X6 and X7.

The timeframe for the start of the proposed UK ban on new ICE car sales, and similar plans in other countries, means JLR has had no choice but to start now on a new zero-emissions strategy. This is particularly key for JLR, because most of its output is larger, heavier luxury vehicles, which are challenging to reinvent as battery-electric vehicles, given their weight and longer range requirements.

Rogers said: “Hydrogen is an ideal application for the bigger vehicles [in our line-up], because the bigger the car, you get diminishing returns [when using] battery packs. The amount of energy you can store in a battery for a given amount of weight means you’re in a position where you’re making the cars that are so heavy, they’re using [a lot] of energy just to cart that heavy weight about.”

Project Zeus was revealed in 2020, when the government announced that it would invest £73 million in ‘seeding’ various automotive projects to reduce CO2 emissions. JLR will work with Delta Motorsport, Marelli Automotive Systems and the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre on its hydrogen project.

According to the Advanced Propulsion Centre, which issued the funding, the JLR-led project “will deliver a zero-tailpipe-emissions premium fuel cell SUV concept with Jaguar Land Rover attributes, such as long range, quick refill, towing, off-road capabilities and low-temperature performance”.

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JLR hired Ralph Clague as its new hydrogen and fuel cells chief in March 2019. Clague had been director of fuel cell research and development at Chinese manufacturer Great Wall since 2016. Autocar also understands that JLR was trying to recruit more hydrogen engineers early this year.

JLR’s entry into hydrogen research comes as there’s a huge resurgence of interest and investment in the fuel, with numerous projects to manufacture ‘green’ hydrogen being announced across Europe in the past few months.

The government recently established the Hydrogen Advisory Council “to inform the development of hydrogen as a strategic decarbonised energy carrier for the UK”.

Much of the world’s hydrogen production is currently achieved by extracting it from natural gas, a process known as reforming. This can’t be regarded as ‘zero-carbon’, because the hydrogen comes from fossil fuels.

However, hydrogen can also be created by using renewable electricity (from wind turbines, for example) to ‘crack’ seawater into hydrogen and oxygen through a process called electrolysis.

According to recent research by forecasting specialist IHS Markit, “costs for producing green hydrogen have fallen by 50% since 2015 and could be reduced by an additional 30% by 2025, due to the benefits of increased scale and more standardised manufacturing, among other factors”.

IHS Markit also noted that investment in hydrogen cracking is set to expand massively over the next few years, saying: “Economies of scale are a primary driver for green hydrogen’s growing cost competitiveness. The average size for ‘power-to-x’ projects scheduled for 2023 is 100MW – 10 times the capacity of the largest project in operation today.”

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Despite all the faith laid in the improvement in EV battery power and storage, there has been a rapid shift in thinking across European governments.

“In Europe, it’s now widely agreed that electrification alone can’t deliver the level of emissions reduction that many countries aspire to,” said IHS Markit’s Catherine Robinson.

The European Union (EU) has put out a very ambitious plan for the roll-out of green hydrogen. It wants hydrogen production decarbonised by 2024 and wants to hit at least 40GW of renewably powered hydrogen production by 2030.

“Analysts estimate clean hydrogen could meet 24% of world energy demand by 2050, with annual sales in the range of €630 billion [£573.8bn],” the EU report says.

It adds: “In regions where renewable electricity is cheap, electrolysers are expected to be able to compete with fossil-based hydrogen in 2030.”

With a typical hydrogen fuel cell vehicle carrying around 5kg of gas, that would suggest a production cost of around €7.50 [£6.83] to fill today’s Toyota Mirai. Even factoring in tax, transportation and producer profits, that makes renewably sourced hydrogen power look cost-competitive during the next decade.

There are a number of other reasons why hydrogen is now receiving massive interest as a zero-carbon fuel.

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First, authorities have realised that CO2-free heavy goods transport, including trains and shipping, can’t be achieved with battery-electric technology. Providing a hydrogen refuelling network for commercial vehicles would, of course, enable hydrogen passenger cars to flourish too.

A major sticking point for hydrogen has also been the economies of scale of production, reflected in the high cost of the few hydrogen fuel cell EVs available, such as the Mirai and Hyundai Nexo. Greater commercial vehicle use could help to reduce that cost.

Second, hydrogen could transform the geopolitics of energy. A likely future stand-off between China and the West could potentially cause the supply of batteries and the necessary rare-earth minerals to be restricted, so hydrogen made renewably would provide a significant and stable supply of green energy for Europe.

Crucially, the issue of hydrogen storage in vehicles is also close to being solved. Currently, hydrogen has to be stored expensively at great pressure, and that requires relatively costly filament-wound tanks that are very hard to package inside a car.

A team of researchers and scientists at Northwestern University in the US have developed a new material, described as a ‘metallic organic framework’, that will allow much greater volumes of hydrogen gas to be stored in a given space and, importantly, at a much lower pressure. The material is described as working like a sponge, able to soak up the gas and then release it under pressure.

This technology could lead to hydrogen tanks fitting in the same space as today’s underfloor battery packs, making the technology an ideal retrofit into JLR’s upcoming MLA multi-fuel car platform.

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Compact hydrogen tanks are also being developed in Germany, while French parts supplier Faurecia is working on new thermoplastic hydrogen storage tanks that should have a factory cost of €400 [£364] per kilogram of gas stored.

There are also significant engineering reasons of weight and cost that might mean hydrogen fuel cell technology will win out over battery-electric powertrains, certainly for larger vehicles at least.

The three hydrogen tanks in today’s Mirai weigh 87kg and offer a range of 312 miles from 5kg of gas. In stark contrast, the battery-electric Tesla Model S Long Range offers a best-conditions range of 320 miles from a 95kWh battery that weighs around 540kg.

This disparity demonstrates the huge weight advantage that hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles could have over BEVs, even with the addition of a fuel cell stack and small battery.

With current EV battery production costs at around £118 per kWh, a 95kWh battery pack is likely to have a factory cost in the region of £11,000.

Even Faurecia’s limited-production-run (circa 30,000 per year) thermoplastic hydrogen tanks would cost just £1820 for a similar range.

Once seen as a dead end, hydrogen fuel cell technology could actually be the winner of the race to decarbonise the automotive industry, especially with the potential geopolitical and ethical trouble ahead for EV battery supply.

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Pietro Cavolonero 15 February 2021

Autocar render in the first pic? What's happened to the roof? Can it only by driven by people of "restricted height"?

Christian Galea 15 February 2021

Some interesting comments, although to be honest I'm still not convinced that BEVs are better than hydrogen fuel cells.

For a start, it is known that the manufacture of BEVs is very polluting, and involves the use of rare-earth materials...and how quickly that deficit to ICE vehicles can be made depends on how the electricity powering the BEV was created.

Second, the comparison between the two technologies is arguably unfair seeing as one (BEVs) has benefited from a-lot of research (both time and money-wise) - from that perspective, I am actually disappointed with the rate of progress of BEVs, and believe that not only is hydrogen still in the early stages of research, but that it is capable of delivering some good results.

All that said, I think we should all keep in mind that anything and everything has its pros and cons, i.e. no technology is perfect. 

paddyb 15 February 2021

The battery production does require a lot of mining of materials, but once those materials are in the battery they can be re-used.  So at a certain point in the future we can expect the majority of new car batteries to come from recycled materials.

Secondly, it is wrong to say that fuel cells have only recently started development.  Mercedes Benz have been experimenting with fuel cells since the 1990s.  But they have never overcome their inherent problems to bring them properly to market.  You cannot change the laws of physics.  

Plugging a source of electricity directly into a battery is always going to be more efficient than using it to convert water into hydrogen, compressing that hydrogen, transporting that hydrogen, putting the hydrogen into a tank in a car, converting that hydrogen back into electricity, storing it momentarily in a battery, and using it to power an electric motor.  Efficiency losses along the chain of events make the whole hydrogen thing a non-starter.  Especially as fast charging tech and battery energy density is improving so rapidly.

Christian Galea 15 February 2021

While it's true that a large portion of a battery can be recycled, it is my understanding that the precious metals are not that easy to retrieve, and any materials that are not financially viable to be recycled by companies will not get recycled, so I'm not entirely sure if it will indeed be the case that "the majority of new car batteries [will] come from recycled materials".

Moreover, new battery technologies such as solid-state batteries are not that easy to recycle either. Another route is to re-purpose them to be used as electricity storage for buildings/homes...but there will be a limit to how much that can be done, and some are against that idea altogether. 

Mentioning the recycling of batteries raises another point, namely the life of batteries. At the moment, manufacturers offer a warranty of maybe 8 years or so on the battery...at which point its efficiency will have dropped substantially. 8 years is not much; would it be economically viable to replace the battery in a car, or would it be deemed too expensive? In which case, a whole car would then need to be written off and recycled? Which also means that a new vehicle must be produced to replace it? To me, that seems like it could be quite environmentally damaging and wasteful (considering that you can't recycle 100% of a battery or car, and recycling in itself consumes energy too).

Regarding fuel cells, I did not say that they "only recently started development" - I said that it's "still in the early stages of research", which is a different matter; yes, hydrogen cells have long been in development, but not much time and money has actually been spent on them - far less than BEVs, certainly - so development has still been relatively minimal, and I would expect that several flaws can be eliminated or improved given time and investment on par with BEVs.

Lastly, there are losses accrued in the transport of electricity too (so no, unless you're generating electricity at home and plugging your car there, you are not plugging the source of electricity directly into a battery). Also, is it not possible that the production of hydrogen that can be used in vehicles can be improved (e.g. coming up with different processes, for which I think there actually is some ongoing research) given adequate development/research? The rate of progress in BEVs is (finally) gathering pace thanks to the sheer number of investment and companies working on them, but I wonder where hydrogen/fuel cells would be given similar R&D resources. 

djhf 15 February 2021
Early indications are that batteries are lasting well. Teslas have completed 500,000 miles with batteries still at c.75% efficiency. Vast majority of ICE cars have died by then. BEVs should need fewer replacements, rather than more.

As with everything, economies of scale will be key. In the future as large amounts of batteries (finally) come to the end of their lives, recycling will ramp up, reducing costs, making the recycling of greater proportions cost effective.

The rate of advancement of BEVs in both energy density and charge rates has been huge over the last decade and will only continue. Hydrogen, despite huge investment from the likes of Toyota and Hyundai/Kia, has barely progressed by comparison.

paddyb 16 February 2021

Christian, I would suggest you go away and do as much research as you can.  Once you can get your head around the whole process of producing and running various types of cars, then the advantage of the BEV becomes obvious.  But you need to challenge every aspect of the process.  There is a logic to why the entire industry is moving to BEVs, and to why Tesla is valued so highly by the market.

paddyb 15 February 2021
Not to be un kind, but if the industrial might of Daimler and Toyota can't make fuel cells work on a mass production scale, I very much doubt JLR has much of a chance. Hydrogen is a nonsense for production cars and all but the most obscure corner cases of transport. The US is going to see BEV technology in much larger vehicles than Land Rovers and Range Rovers, notably the Tesla Cybertruck, electric Ford F-150s and Rivians. They're barking up the wrong tree on hydrogen I'm afraid.

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