A German start-up called Keyou is developing a hydrogen-based engine alternative to the traditional diesel engine. The company founder, a former BMW manager, has been working on the project for a number of years.
Today, the reputation of diesel vehicles could hardly be worse. The German car manufacturers have one scandal after the next, and new challenges such as bans on driving diesel engines in some cities (e.g. Cologne and Munich) occur almost daily. This situation, however, might just be favourable for the Munich Startup, Keyou.
The company is retro-engineering diesel engines so that a conventional combustion engine will become a hydrogen-based engine and thus offering a low-emission alternative.
“The gas produces no climate-damaging CO2 and barely any nitrogen oxides during combustion — only water is dripping from the exhaust”, says co-founder Thomas Korn.
In addition, compared to a battery hydrogen also has further advantages including a range of around 500 kilometres, while current battery powered vehicles are limited to roughly 200 kilometres with a single battery charge.
However, the technology is not new. BMW introduced a car model with a hydrogen combustion engine in 2007. This was also the case, but the Bavarian autocroup gave up two years later. Keyou-Gründerkorn then ran the hydrogen project at BMW. The stop did not let go.
There have been two main limiting factors which have slowed down the development of hydrogen vehicles, says Korn, neither of which are technical.
“On the one hand, there has been no infrastructure for hydrogen mobility and therefore no market for such vehicles.”
Even today, a nationwide network of hydrogen filling stations remains a distant goal, but by 2019 it is anticipated that there could be 100 stations.
The second reason is that after tests in California, BMW abandoned a similar project. The goal of the project was, however, a political one, says Korn. In 2007 and 2008, BMW wanted to introduce a hydrogen combustion engine in California. “Despite successful tests, the technology was not recognized as a zero-emission vehicle by the California authorities,” and as such BMW abandoned the technology, moving instead to batteries and electric motors.
Korn, together with his former BMW colleague Alvaro Sousa, founded Keyou in 2015. In a first round of financing in 2016, the start-up received a seven-figure amount.
However, the young company is still in its infancy. A few weeks ago, the Keyou engine was running for the first time. In the coming year, Keyou plans to present a converted truck as a prototype. Several automotive manufacturers have already announced interest in the technology, the company says.
The converted engine should cost roughly as much as a diesel engine. Running costs will depend on the cost per kilo of hydrogen but, according to the start-up, this should be the case at a price of just three euros per kilogram of hydrogen.
Korn is confident that this time it will work better than at BMW.
“The need for clean and sustainable technologies has increased, but the solutions currently available are not capable of offering a competitive solution to conventional vehicles.”