My chemistry teacher would be amazed. I failed my O level despite his best efforts.
But now, 60 years later, my company JCB is developing a chemical alternative to fossil fuels which might yet help to solve the energy crisis — and enable the UK to meet its ambitious goal of cutting our net carbon emissions to zero by 2050.
The solution is right in front of us. It’s in our water — or H2O, as my chemistry teacher would say.
16 months ago, in July 2020 a team made up of engineers from JCB began designing an engine that could be used to drive a digger powered entirely by hydrogen. The first working prototype had been tested by December.
And I showed the result to the Prime Minster last month.
It is important to note that the digger is not currently in commercial production. It is still in development. It’s a work-in-progress, but I hope to have it available for customers by next year.
JCB is working on a chemical solution to the problem of energy scarcity. Pictured: Boris Johnson and Lord Bamford fill up a hydrogen-fueled JCB machine
In the past, hydrogen engines were not produced by anyone. Instead, manufacturers tried to convert petrol engines to make them work. Unfortunately, this resulted in harmful oxides of nitrogen.
My team was able to create a high-performance, zero-CO2 hydrogen fuel-motor through experimentation. The motor emits steam from the tailpipe and is very efficient. (But more on engines later).
This has made me more convinced that hydrogen, rather than electric batteries, holds the key to resolving our global climate crisis.
And yes, we can keep driving, keep building, keep flying, keep heating our homes — all without pumping any carbon dioxide or other toxic emissions into the atmosphere.
It is not an exaggeration at all to say that the hydrogen engine could be the most important invention in the 21st century.
We don’t have to invent new technologies to do this. Because hydrogen engines operate on the internal combustion principle, they will feel familiar to anyone who has used petrol or diesel engines.
Another major advantage is their cost — roughly the same as traditional engines running on fossil fuels.
Hydrogen engines will be much more affordable than electric options, which can be expensive, heavy, and difficult to recycle.
Quite simply, this could be a revolution in the making — and one that could propel Britain to the forefront of global energy production.
I was skeptical at first when the concept was explained to me. I don’t blame anyone who is skeptical. However, it is vital that we convince politicians to consider the many benefits that hydrogen has to offer.
It can heat and lighten our cities, as well as fuel our cars, trains, vans, and vehicles.
All of this was admittedly not in my mind when my team decided to create the prototype.
My team developed a zero-CO2 hydrogen fuel engine that is high-performance and purpose-engineered. It emits steam from the tailpipe.
I had a business problem that I needed to solve first.
JCB manufactures diesel engines. We currently produce 400 diesel engines a day for our variety of farming and building machinery.
With the Government’s pledge to stop using petrol and diesel in cars it became apparent that we had to look at other means of powering our machines.
Batteries are not the right answer for our industry.
Construction and agriculture industries would be forced to rely on large-machine battery power, which would make them unviable.
It’s not clear how large machines could be recharged in the middle a field. It is also unsafe and impractical to run an electric cable across a building site each time a crew needs to recharge a 30-tonne machine.
Additionally, a large battery that can power heavy machinery requires to be enormous. This makes it heavy and expensive.
Even the batteries for a family vehicle take up most the wheelbase, filling an area the size of one-quarter of a bed. This is why electric cars are so heavy. It’s also why electric cars are so expensive.
Batteries are not suitable for small machinery.
A small digger produced by JCB is a two-tonne miniexcavator. It is also available in an electric version. The diesel version costs about £18,000. The battery model £32,000.
We are not making any more money from the electric model, even though it’s £14,000 more expensive. This is due to the four batteries costing so much.
It is clear that automobile manufacturers face the same problem. A modest family hatchback such as the Vauxhall Corsa is roughly £15,500 for the cheapest petrol model — but over ten grand more, at £26,500, for the electric version.
This is a huge cost that motorists will have to pay. I worry that many people won’t be able to afford electric cars.
Even those who can afford one, the higher weight will mean that they will have to pay more for maintenance, such as brake wear, tyre wear, and other parts.
I firmly believe we’ve been mesmerised by Musk — that is Tesla CEO Elon Musk and his vision of an all-electric future.
We need to be more realistic and offer real-world solutions to the problems that we face.
For example, an engineer who is familiar with diesel or petrol engines to retrain on electric models would have to forget a lot of their knowledge and start from scratch. In the developing world, the logistical challenges would be immense.
Hydrogen engines however, can solve all of these problems.
The beauty of these engines is that they use the same internal combustion principles as petrol and diesel. They have pistons and spark plugs — and can have manual or automatic gearboxes, too.
Only, instead liquid petrol or diesel fuel, hydrogen gas can be mixed with air in the engine chamber. At that point, a spark plug ignites it.
In July 2020, engineers from JCB set about designing an engine that could run entirely on hydrogen. Last month, I presented the results to the Prime Minister (pictured).
This is the moment when combustion occurs, which causes the pistons to fall, creating the power that makes a machine move and do its job.
Any engineer with experience will be able to quickly get to grips this new but familiar technology. Hydrogen tech is applicable to vans and trucks, combine harvesters and trains, as well as any other heavy machinery.
And this is not pie-in-the-sky — it’s already here.
Boris Johnson and I were delighted to show Boris Johnson the new hydrogen-powered loaders we built, in advance of their appearance at Cop26, the climate-change summit in Glasgow.
Boris was more than happy for a quick test of refuelling the machine. It takes only a few minutes, much like filling up your car.
It will take more than just a photo opportunity to convince Government that this is the best way to address the climate crisis.
The Government’s Net Zero Strategy was published last month and offered many options.
As well as a £1 billion commitment to backing electric vehicles, there’s £180 million in funding for sustainable aviation fuel and £1.5 billion for research into technologies for decarbonising our homes and industries.
There is also £385 million for an Advanced Nuclear Fund. However, hydrogen combustion engines get just a glancing reference.
Although I appreciate the brief mention in this document, I strongly believe that hydrogen engines should be at the center of the Net Zero Strategy. Other green strategies won’t suffice. We cannot ignore the solution that may be our best and most simple hope.
This is a solution the Royal Automobile Club recognized yesterday, when it awarded JCB the prestigious Dewar Trophy to technical achievement.
If you are skeptical that hydrogen could be infinitely more efficient than battery power, consider this: the fuel tax currently generates tens of trillions of dollars a year for the Exchequer.
The Government will lose its income if we all switch to charging cars with mains electricity. A replacement source of taxable electricity is available if we switch to hydrogen combustion.
Übrigens: I’m not the only one who thinks hydrogen engines could be the answer.
Toyota, a Japanese carmaker, confirmed last week that it was also testing hydrogen combustion technology on race cars, as it works towards hydrogen engines in future commercial products.
Toyota already manufactures hydrogen-fuel cell vehicles. They are growing in popularity, especially in Japan, where there is an established hydrogen fuel bus network.
They are, however, like other electric vehicles, very expensive — and their highly technical, sensitive components render them impractical for large machinery.
These problems can be overcome by hydrogen combustion. It is important that Toyota is moving away from hydrogen fuel cells and moving towards hydrogen engines.
Two things are needed to produce green hydrogen: electricity, and water.
Electrolysis is a process that separates hydrogen molecules from oxygen.
The electricity required to power the process can be generated using solar or wind power. For example, wind farms are able to generate electricity at night.
Since electricity is difficult to store, much of the power generated by wind energy after dark or during the weekend currently goes unused — so harnessing it for green hydrogen production makes excellent economic sense.
Although we produce a small amount of hydrogen, we are not producing enough to fuel the world’s cars and machinery, heat its homes, or power its industry.
Hydrogen engines will be much more affordable than electric options, which can be expensive, heavy, and difficult to recycle. Pictured: Lord Bamford and Mr Johnson
However, there is still a lot of potential. We have the potential to make infinite amounts of hydrogen, if necessary.
It could be easily generated in those countries of the Middle East that have benefited hugely from oil production — because they also have limitless sunshine, which could be used for the solar-powered electricity that can be diverted into electrolysing plants.
This could be a powerful incentive to countries such as Saudi Arabia not to produce oil. Morocco is a leader in solar power, having already made significant investments.
I would love to see Britain leading the hydrogen revolution. It will require huge reservoirs of water… which we have plenty of.
We will import it from abroad in the interim to get green hydrogen production moving.
Earlier this week, I was delighted that JCB, in partnership with Ryze Hydrogen — a hydrogen production and distribution firm owned by my son, Jo Bamford — reached an agreement with Australia’s Fortescue Future Industries, to buy 10 per cent of their global green hydrogen production for use in the UK.
This is a significant step forward in the direction of green hydrogen becoming a viable solution.
Transporting hydrogen shouldn’t be a problem. It may not be straightforward to convert hydrogen gas to liquid, since it must be cooled down to around minus 253c.
However, once it is in liquid form, it can be easily stored and transported in bulk.
It can also be made into ammonia by adding nitrogen. Ammonia can be easily transported. Ammonia can be transported easily and converted to pure hydrogen by cracking.
The gas itself can also be piped through existing natural gas channels and could even fuel ordinary central heating systems with a few adjustments — no need for hugely expensive, ineffective heat pumps.
With the right infrastructure, green hydrogen gas can be easily transported from electrolysis plants to tankers and refuelling stations for vehicles in our country.
Hydrogen production is not always clean. But that doesn’t mean it has to be. There are endless possibilities for solar and wind-powered electricity in the future.
Many geologists believe it is possible that pure gas reserves, also known as ‘gold hydrogen,’ are hidden in the Earth’s crust and ready to be extracted.
What are we waiting for?
This might sound all too good to true. The simplicity of the idea is breathtaking.
It’s an opportunity you don’t want to miss.
Climate change may be the biggest problem humanity has ever faced — but hydrogen engines could well be mankind’s greatest solution yet.
Since 1975, Anthony Bamford has been the chairman of JCB.