Nasa tech at Asda prices: Indian firm’s hydrogen fuel cell bike plan gives glimpse of future

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Hydrogen fuel cells have been around for decades but they’re still seen as a space-age technology more at home on the International Space Station than at your local filling station. But that won’t be the case for long.

Internationally, governments are converging towards 2035 for the end of CO2-emitting vehicle sales, and the UK authorities are hoping for an even earlier exit for combustion-engined 125cc-class motorcycles, mooting a 2030 cut-off date.

That’s barely a model generation away, meaning small petrol-powered bikes launched now could be among the last of their breed. Battery-powered electric vehicles are currently the favourite technology to replace them, but the hydrogen fuel cell is widely seen as a longer-term option – less resource-intensive to make, lighter and faster to refuel, still offering zero-emissions electric power.

TVS patent drawing laid over iQube

Honda, Suzuki, and Yamaha all demonstrated prototype hydrogen fuel cell bikes more than a decade ago, but there appears to have been little development since then.

Now India’s TVS, a manufacturing giant making more than 2.5 million bikes per year, owner of Norton and partner of BMW in the production of the G310 models, is developing a simple, low-cost fuel cell scooter which could make its way to the UK.

Revealed in the firm’s patent applications, the scooter’s design has ease of assembly and servicing high on its priorities, with a layout unlike that of prototypes seen from other companies. The hydrogen is stored in two canisters clamped to the front downtube of the frame, ahead of the rider’s legs, making them easy to attach and remove.

Suzuki Hydrogen refuelling

They’re linked by pipework, with a filler nozzle on the front of the bike, near the headlight. Behind them sits a battery, under the footboard. Why a battery on a fuel cell vehicle? It’s needed to provide extra performance on demand, as well as acting as a repository for energy scavenged during deceleration or braking. The fuel cell recharges it while power demands are lower.

The fuel cell stack itself sits under the seat, where the battery might go on a more conventional electric scooter, making it easy to drop in during assembly and to remove if required for servicing. Other components in the fuel system, known as ‘balance of plant’ parts, including a pressure regulator, flow meter and shut-off valve, are below it, near the swingarm pivot.

TVS’s patent doesn’t show detail of the motor itself, but it’s likely to be a hub-mounted unit, similar to the 4.4kW one in the existing TVS iQube battery-powered electric scooter. While the iQube can do 60 miles before stopping for a 4.5-hour recharge, a fuel cell version could be replenished in seconds from a hydrogen filling station.

How do Hydrogen fuel cells work?

Bosch hydrogen fuel stack

Like a battery, a fuel cell has two electrodes – a negative anode and a positive cathode – with an electrolyte membrane between them. But instead of storing energy, like a battery, and hence needing to be recharged, a fuel cell converts fuel, in this case hydrogen, into electricity by reacting with oxygen from the air.

Hydrogen is pumped into the anode, air is blown into the cathode. In the anode, a catalyst splits the hydrogen molecules into electrons and protons. The electrolyte membrane allows the protons straight through to the cathode, but not the electrons, which have to go through the electric circuit to reach the cathode, creating a current.

In the cathode, the oxygen and the hydrogen protons and electrons combine to become the exhaust, which is pure H2O. That’s right, water.

Ben Purvis

By Ben Purvis