May 14, 2023

JCB's Green Transition | Hydrogen-Powered Construction Machinery

 Many manufacturers have turned to electrically powered engines, but is this possible for all automakers? For a company like JCB, which specializes in the manufacture of engines for heavy machinery, electric engines are just not good enough. This is because electric engines are incapable of producing the kind of power these heavy machines require. 

JCB Hydrogen | Green Energy | JCB | Hydrogen Fuel Cell

Replacing diesel engines with batteries in heavy-lifting equipment will amount to sacrificing power for less environmentally harmful emissions. And quite frankly, other brands can afford to make that sacrifice, but not JCB. Certain activities, like construction and agriculture, require machines with power, and that’s a fact. So JCB acknowledged the need for a peculiar solution to their dilemma. They realized they just had to make environmentally friendly engines by some means, but they couldn't afford to sacrifice the power of their engines.

JCB Embraces Hydrogen Fuel: A Game-Changer for Construction Machinery

To suffice these conditions, in 2020, JCB started working towards developing hydrogen-powered engines with similar power potentials as diesel engines but this time it was environmentally friendly. 

Video Courtesy: JCB Youtube

Now, barely a few years down the line, even though JCB has yet to commence the mass production of hydrogen engines, they have made immense progress. For JCB, hydrogen engines are the future, and they are championing this course. 

Reasons behind opting for Hydrogen Engine

In this article, we will take a look at JCB's hydrogen engine. We will also examine why JCB has opted for hydrogen as the fuel that powers its engine of the future, the benefits of hydrogen over diesel engines, and how much impact this invention will have on drivers.

Electric engines can power small machines that do not require immense amounts of energy. Advancements in technology, like the manufacture of electric cars, have proven this. But what we are yet to see are electrically powered heavy trucks, and that’s simply because heavy machines like the type manufactured by JCB have higher energy needs—needs that battery power won’t be sufficient to meet. To provide this amount of energy via the EV route, these machines must be fitted with giant-sized batteries. The physical space required to carry these batteries and the additional weight this would require make it impracticable.

JCB Pioneers Hydrogen Fuel Integration for Enhanced Performance

How this is possible? To arrive at this conclusion, JCB had previously experimented with several diesel alternatives. In 2019, JCB fitted a fuel cell supplied by Nissan in a prototype 20-ton X-series excavator. After a series of investigations, the company concluded that battery cells were too complicated and expensive for heavy machines. From JCB’s findings, using these fuel cells would increase the cost of these machines to almost three times the cost of regular diesel machines. Running costs were also not excluded and were projected to shoot up considerably, making this battery-powered heavy equipment too expensive for customers if at all they were to be made commercial in the end. So with JCB’s aim still set on achieving zero net emissions, JCB began the development of its hydrogen engines.

The difference between Running a Car and a Machne - JCB is a Machine

Tim Burnhope, JCB's chief innovation and growth officer, stated that there is a big difference between a car and a machine and that JCB deals with machines. For Tim, JCB has to seek solutions that consider both their machine and target market, and because even though electricity might be the most popular diesel alternative, it isn't the only alternative to fossil fuel, we can't help but agree with Tim on this. Initially, JCB set out to convert diesel engines to hydrogen engines. In the process, they found out that conversion wasn't going to function well. They later abandoned the idea of modification, going back to the first principles to produce 100 percent hydrogen combustion engines. JCB wanted to produce hydrogen engines that would match diesel engines in efficiency while producing zero greenhouse emissions in the process, and this wasn’t going to come easy. But after two years and over 50 prototypes, the company has finally arrived at a patent they are satisfied with.

Difference between Diesel Powered JCB and Hydrogen-Powered JCB

Physically, the JCB hydrogen-combustion engine doesn't look much different from diesel engines. Drivers wouldn't notice any difference when driving. And according to Ryan Ballard, the Head of Engine Development at JCB, the only thing drivers might notice is that the engine is less noisy, which is a good thing, by the way. The new hydrogen engine has the same torque as a diesel engine, meaning it can generate enough power to handle difficult conditions. Its peak efficiency is however slightly higher than in diesel engines. We expect that JCB engineers worldwide won't encounter too many difficulties when working on hydrogen engines, as they are quite similar to diesel engines. The capacity and bottom end of JCB’s hydrogen engines are the same as those of diesel engines. 

How does the JCB's Hydrogen Engine work? 

In the hydrogen engine, the traditional diesel injectors are replaced with hydrogen injectors and spark plugs. Hydrogen, having a much lower density than diesel, is injected at a lower temperature and pressure compared to what is achievable in diesel engines. Unlike diesel engines, this engine does not auto-ignite, and this is why a spark plug is included in the engine to ignite the fuel. For combustion to take place, there has to be a perfect mix of hydrogen and air inside the engine.

Video Courtesy: JCB Linkedin

According to Tim, this homogeneous mixture is to be achieved in 28 milliseconds. To do this, a high-efficiency turbocharger with low inertia is included to get more air into the engine very quickly. Burning air at a particular temperature can lead to the production of nitric oxide. However, with the low temperature and pressure of combustion in the hydrogen engine, these emissions will not be created. Ultimately, the hydrogen engine is a much cleaner alternative to diesel engines. There is zero carbon combustion inside the engine, leading to zero CO2 emissions.

What is the by-product of a Hydrogen Engine? Water Liquid or in Steam form?

The by-product of the combustion reaction inside the engine is steam, which comes out through the exhaust. This steam, which Ryan Ballard refers to as dry steam, is managed within the engine using special oil. This oil doesn't form an emulsion in water and keeps water vapor away from the engine. 

Also, refueling JCB’s hydrogen engine is quite simple. Most heavy-duty machines are fuelled on-site from bunkers that are capable of storing large amounts of fuel. A bowser is basically a tank used to transport fuel to heavy-duty machines. This same principle is applied to hydrogen combustion engines, and JCB has already built a hydrogen storage tank with the capacity to hold 100 kg of hydrogen. It is designed to operate at a pressure of 500 bars with a machine pressure of 350 bars. This way, the process of refueling doesn't require a pump as it is essentially a decantation process. And so in just a few minutes, an empty tank can be filled with hydrogen fuel comfortably.

Availability of Hydrogen for Refueling.

But beyond refueling, there’s a bigger challenge, and that’s getting hydrogen fuel. This has to be the biggest challenge when it comes to switching from diesel-powered engines to hydrogen fuel. Diesel fuel is readily available, but where do we get the hydrogen fuel to power these new engines? Hydrogen, which is the most abundant substance on earth, isn't readily available in its pure form, and only pure hydrogen can be used as fuel. It is however safe to say that JCB has its eyes set on the future. Having developed an engine that runs on clean hydrogen fuel, the next challenge will be making green hydrogen easily available. However, on a more optimistic note, many countries have started making advances toward the production of hydrogen fuel. And while we are still a long way from a world with zero carbon emissions, it is clear that progress is being made.

But why even bother towing the hydrogen fuel path? Toyota also believes very much in a hydrogen-fueled automobile future, so JCB is not the first to think of a hydrogen-dominated lot. Well, we believe it’s simply because of the many benefits of hydrogen engines. Apart from the scarcity of hydrogen fuel, we are convinced that hydrogen engines are better than diesel engines. With hydrogen fuel, we have a much cleaner alternative to diesel and gasoline. The net CO2 emission from hydrogen combustion engines is zero. The chemical reaction that takes place inside the engine is void of carbon, with dry steam being the by-product.


In summary, JCB’s innovative step of moving from conventional Fuel to Hydrogen-Powered is a prominent step towards making net zero-emission, hydrogen-fueled combustion engines that do not require any significant adaptation, at least from drivers. The vehicles operate in just the same way as those with diesel engines, and interestingly, hydrogen engines, according to JCB, are slightly more efficient. 

Additionally, when considering power and torque, they plot a similar curve to diesel engines. Compared with electric batteries, hydrogen engines have more economic value for heavy-duty machines. They also do not contribute significantly to the net weight of the machine. Electric batteries capable of producing the required amount of energy to power big machines tend to be too heavy, and these batteries would also occupy just too much space. The engineers at JCB believe that hydrogen-powered machines are the future. And though we were a little skeptical about how it was going to work some years back, their new engines have gone a long way to convince us.

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