Think hydrogen power for cars and most will think of fuel cells. But not if you are Mazda.
The Japanese car maker used the opening in August of Norway's first hydrogen filling station near Stavanger as the perfect occasion to show off its RX-8 Hydrogen RE for the first time outside of Japan.
Leasing of this model - a dual-fuel, hydrogen and petrol rotary-engine vehicle - began earlier this year in Japan, a world first for a passenger car with a hydrogen internal combustion engine. This is the latest step in 15 years of Mazda research into hydrogen vehicles.
Car makers currently are tackling the problems of emissions on two major fronts - hybrids, which have been available to buy or lease since the turn of the century, and more recently developing engines that can run on hydrogen, which is completely clean.
Most engineers believe that these are not stop-gap measures being used until fuel cell engines become affordable but genuine alternative technologies that make cars cleaner and more economical.
“A hydrogen rotary engine only emits water. It is not as efficient as a fuel cell, but structurally it is closer to the petrol engine, hence its manufacturing cost is lower and it has fewer durability issues,” said Akihiro Kashiwagi, Mazda’s Hydrogen Programme Manager.
“Compared to fuel cells, hydrogen engines with dual-fuel system are more likely to play a significant role in the initial phase of the hydrogen energy society in the future. That is why Mazda is currently focused on developing dual-fuel system hydrogen engine.”
For Mazda, with its heritage of rotary engines, this has presented a particular challenge, and one it has met with a number of solutions using both hydrogen and hybrid power.
These ideas came together in the Senku concept, first shown at the 2005 Tokyo Motor Show.
Hisakazu Imaki, Representative Director, President and CEO of Mazda Motor believes that “Mazda’s creativity and spirit of innovation” helps the company produce these solutions.
The four-seater Senku, he said, is a rotary sports car that “strives to be both eco-friendly and very safe, and makes us ponder the transformation of what we consider to be of value, of thinking about the world we live in...and yet is still compatible with some distinctive Mazda Zoom-Zoom fun.”
But these solutions are not just in concept cars - there are real world applications. Mazda first used hydrogen power in 1991 and tested a fuel cell in 1992.
This year, Mazda began leasing the RX-8 Hydrogen RE to its first two corporate customers - both energy-related companies. These vehicles, equipped with a rotary engine, feature a dual-fuel system that allows the driver to select either hydrogen or petrol with the flick of a switch.
By the end of 2006, Mazda plans to lease about 10 RX-8 Hydrogen RE cars to local government and energy companies in Japan.
It took Mazda 29 months from the time it announced the hydrogen concept model at the 2003 Tokyo show to achieve the breakthrough, real-world rotary hydrogen vehicle.
Employing a dual-fuel system, the Mazda RX-8 Hydrogen RE can run on either high-pressure hydrogen gas or gasoline. This means it can be driven in remote areas where hydrogen fuelling stations are not readily available, easing driver concerns about running out of fuel. In addition, this system boasts great environmental friendliness - zero emission of carbon dioxide (CO2) gas and near zero nitrogen oxide (NOx) emission when fuelled by hydrogen -together with the natural driving feel of an internal combustion engine. It uses engine parts and production facilities that already exist in Mazda’s inventory, which gives reliability and reduced manufacturing costs.
While the £2,000 (420,000 yen) monthly lease might sound high, it is about half the monthly lease price of a fuel cell vehicle already available in Japan.Published 7 September 2006