March 17, 2023

Is Cummins Hydrogen Engine the Death Knell for Diesel?

 When we hear the name Cummins, within a fraction of a second you might think of a diesel engine. After all, that's what their entire business is built on. But recently they have ventured into the world of Hydrogen Combustion Engines (where hydrogen is used as a fuel) and could eventually replace the massively successful and long line of diesel engines? It sounds crazy!

Why on Earth would Cummins even think to pursue hydrogen engines when their entire business is built on diesel engines? Designing them, producing them, supplying them, they're all over the world. But it is true, they are pursuing hydrogen engines.

Cummins Hydrogen Combustion Engine | Cummins Diesel Engine | Specs of Cummins Hydrogen Engine

So, let me drive you into the most renowned brand Cummins and what is the reason behind their pursuit of hydrogen engines? What is in it for them? Is their money to be made? Is there some sort of innovation that they have? What are they doing? Too many questions. Let's take a look at Cummins.

Why there is a need for a Hydrogen Engine?

We see huge money daily and year after year, being invested into electric vehicle systems. Companies like Ford and other big automakers are putting tons of money into electric vehicle systems and we can get to know from the EPA's (Environmental Protection Agency) scheduled emissions restrictions, that life for gasoline and diesel-powered engines is going to get very difficult, if not outright impossible shortly. 

And keeping in mind, there is a possibility that the free market will be going to willingly choose electric over fossil fuel vehicles anytime soon, due to pricing and range concerns. Rather it’s being forced by a branch of the government, and because of that, we have seen the electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, also known as EVs and PHEVs, popping up left and right from just about every single automaker in the world.

Vehicle Electrification

Vehicle electrification can help individuals who live in the city, who do not have long commutes, and especially do not have to use their vehicles for work, so something like the Ford F-150 lightning, it’s not a particularly great work truck because of the range when towing and hauling, 

But what about people who don't live in the city? What about off-highway construction? What about over-the-road long-distance trucking? 

There are a lot of applications where electricity simply just doesn't make sense as of right now. Well, you might be thinking to yourself, well, we have electric semi-trucks coming soon, but there's a huge amount of work to be done before said electric semi-trucks are useful for long-distance hauling of goods. The massive infrastructure required simply is not there yet, it doesn't mean that it won't be there, or can’t be there, it's just simply not yet of course.

Why lithium extraction is expensive?

On the other side, it is worth mentioning that lithium mining is incredibly destructive, cobalt mining involves literal child labor in the Democratic Republic of Congo in some of the worst conditions imaginable, and fossil fuel power plants are still supplying the power required to charge vehicles, at least still in the country like India and partially in the US and upcoming countries. It is almost exclusively supplied by fossil fuel power plants. And that still needs to cover off-highway construction where electricity simply is just not a good option because of the location of where the work is being done.

Suppose you wanted to use electric vehicles for bringing materials in and out of electric machinery in an off-highway construction site. In that case, you’d likely need a huge diesel generator on site to supply the electricity for those vehicles, which kind of defeats the purpose. Don’t underestimate the ridiculous amount of power required for an electric vehicle to operate. So, that brings us back to the internal combustion engine, but as we mentioned, the EPA has scheduled emissions restrictions that are coming shortly, that are going to strangle gas and diesel engines.

Cummins Hydrogen Powered Combustion Engines

If one wants to keep the internal combustion engine in use, then they have to switch the fuel source to something cleaner, which is exactly why Cummins has been putting money into Hydrogen-Powered Engine solutions for on-the-road trucking, off-highway construction, and so on. And with something like a Cummins-powered generator, it could more easily have the electrical generation required to power off-highway construction with electric vehicles bringing materials in and out or just having electric construction equipment like an excavator and so on. Now, it doesn't mean that we're going to see electric excavators becoming incredibly popular anytime soon, as it likely won't happen for another 20 to 40 years. 

So, that takes us to Cummins's two new hydrogen-powered engines which are based very much on two types of diesel that already exist in Cummins's portfolio, which are the 6.7 liters that you can find in applications like the Ram 2500 and the 15 liters that one can find in applications like commercial trucks. And even more, interestingly, Cummins isn't developing these strictly as hydrogen-fueled engines, but rather as fuel-agnostic engines that can be powered by either Diesel or Hydrogen, which then massively eases concerns regarding the lacking infrastructure required for a strict hydrogen engine.

They're doing this by using a  shared common short block for both the Diesel and the Hybrid fuel engines. The major change in Cummins Hydrogen Engine from a regular Diesel engine is everything from the head gasket down is just about the same, but everything from the head gasket up has to be changed for the new fuel type. And by sharing a common short block and as many components as they can, it not only makes development cheaper and easier but also makes it much easier to convert existing 6.7-liter and 15-liter engines over to the new hybrid fuel design shortly, at least in theory.

Cumins new biogas and HvO Fuel Engine

And on top of that, they're not even stopping there. This new fuel-agnostic platform is also expanding to biogas fuel and hvo fuel, giving prospective buyers lots of options coming very soon. For now, though, the big news and attention mostly lie on hydrogen fuel engines, and well part of the reason is that they’re not exactly practical yet. Because, the thing is you have to generate hydrogen, which requires electricity you can't generate energy for free. There are multiple videos on YouTube regarding hydrogen generators and how you can plug one into your car, and don’t get me wrong, that's very interesting. But if we think pragmatically building an onboard hydrogen generator that can power a 6.7-liter or 15-liter engine simply isn't practical. It would be physically massive.

Liquid hydrogen /On Board Hydrogen Generating

So, the other solution, if you want to have a large 6.7L or 15L engine powered by hydrogen, is by using liquid hydrogen and to do that you need to have an onboard storage tank or multiple onboard storage tanks, but there’s only one problem, hydrogen isn't a liquid, at least not until it's cooled to negative 423 degrees Fahrenheit. Now, that in itself takes energy, and then the hydrogen won't stay in that liquid state as it heats back up, which then means you need to have a massively pressurized holding tank to keep it in that liquid state, that means the standard fuel tank cannot be used, it has to be swapped out. 

It is not that a hydrogen-powered future is impossible. I do believe hydrogen-powered internal combustion engines have a lot of potential, but simply that onboard generation will be a very challenging task with an engine this large. It’s just not going to be possible as of right now, which means we're stuck with using liquid hydrogen, which then has its own sets of hurdles and obstacles to overcome. And on top of that, just one question here, if it takes electricity to generate hydrogen through electrolysis to then burn through a combustion engine then why don't we just use that electricity to power an electric motor connected to the wheels, in the first place?

How Cummins is preparing for an alternative to Electricity?

That takes us right back to the start. Some hurdles must be cleared for hydrogen-powered internal combustion engines to be adopted in masses. On the bright side, hydrogen-fueled internal combustion engines are very similar to compressed natural gas engines, which again, simplifies the development process even further. And because the upcoming Cummins hydrogen-powered engines are based on existing Cummins diesel engines, that almost eliminates the possibility of reliability issues since existing Cummins diesel is incredibly reliable or at least as reliable as they can be given the emission systems that we know plague reliability.

Cumins Hydrogen Engine Specifications

That means it can also build up to existing transmissions, generators, etc. It can also use the same cooling systems and a bunch of components. It makes it much easier to use a shared platform. Cummins Hydrogen internal combustion Engine specifications are 6.7-liter hydrogen engine outputs an impressive 216  kilowatts and 1200 newton meters, which translates to 290 horsepower and 885 pound-feet of torque.

Cummins believes that hydrogen-powered engines will be complementary to battery electric vehicles like buses and trucks, but that one powertrain type won't completely replace the other. As I mentioned earlier, there will be significant use cases for both types of engines, and I think that's exactly what Cummins is trying to prepare for. By not switching entirely to hydrogen, by not switching entirely to electric, they're diversifying their product lineup and preparing to offer products for a wide range of applications.

Has Cummins's diesel segment been dead?

No, far from it. We're going to see Cummins diesel engines produced for a very long time and if they can massively clean up their diesel engines without adding even more reliability plaguing emission systems, by using something, like, ducted fuel injection or something, to come up with some sort of innovation to help clean up their engines, we could see Cummins diesel engines being used for another 20/30/40/50 years, depending on how they evolve. But, with the upcoming EPA regulations, we know that it in fact might not be possible. So, Cummins is preparing for the worst and they're diversifying their product lineup by offering engines that can run on multiple different fuel sources by running on the same base engine.

Other Companies that are developing Hydrogen Powered Engine

And it's also worth noting, it's not like Cummins is doing this on their own. There are a ton of different companies putting money into hydrogen-powered internal combustion engines. Over in Japan, companies like Mazda, Yamaha, Toyota, and Kawasaki, have all banded together to develop hydrogen solutions. All of these companies compete with each other in some way, yet they're working together towards saving the internal combustion engine.

Cummins is also working with various other companies to push this technology and make it a truly viable solution, because again, battery electric vehicles are simply impractical for long distances over the road trucking and Highway construction, at least for now. And while this is all very interesting and very exciting, we likely won't be seeing either the 6.7-liter or 15-liter hydrogen engines enter production for quite a while.

As per Cummins, the 15-liter engine will enter full production in 2027 and the 6.7-liter should be as soon as 2023.

In my opinion, the diesel engine still has a way to go, it's still going to be used for quite a while because as mentioned previously, off-highway construction is a huge hurdle to clear for electric vehicles and is simply not going to be practical for a significant amount of time. The next decade, two, or three, will have a lot of innovation in the automotive world, in the engine world, and we could see things change massively. So, all we can do as of right now is just sit back and wait to see how this all unfolds. 


In summary, while Cummin's Hydrogen Engine is an exciting development, it's unlikely to be the sole cause of the decline of diesel engines in the short term. However, it's a step towards a more sustainable transportation future and could eventually play a significant role in reducing emissions and improving air quality in the coming years.

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