Words and pictures by Grant Spolander.
Lower consumption more TORQUE
I must be looking doubtful. Fernado Gasser, the designer and manufacturer of Greenpowr hydrogen fuel cells, turns to me and says, “You look sceptical; what’s bugging you?”
Fernando and I have spent the last two hours chatting about his hydrogen fuel cell product and how it supposedly increases engine torque while decreasing fuel consumption. It’s a controversial subject, but from what Fernando’s told me the concept sounds plausible.
However, there’s one last question I need to ask and it’s a tough one. “But what about the scientific law of conservation of energy, that states energy can neither be created or destroyed?”.
I search Fernando’s face for any signs of uncertainty but he doesn’t flinch. Instead, he smiles at me as if he has been waiting for the question. “You’re absolutely right,” he says. “We can’t contest the laws of physics, but we’re not trying to – we’re simply optimising the combustion process by ensuring that all the unburnt fuel is used – that’s where the performance gain comes from, and that’s why it’s so critical that the correct quantity of gas is produced.”
Fernando’s words drop into place like the final piece of a jigsaw puzzle, and it all starts to make sense to me. I feel like a new convert – a believer in the unbelievable.
Hydrogen injection isn’t a new concept, but it is a highly contentious one, because the energy required to produce hydrogen gas often exceeds the energy gained from burning it.
But let’s first go a few steps back. A basic hydrogen fuel cell uses electrolysis to separate water into two elements: two parts hydrogen to one part oxygen. This gassy mixture is then pumped into the engine’s manifold and used as a fuel supplement during the combustion cycle. Because hydrogen gas is so flammable (it’s commonly used as rocket fuel), it optimises the burning process and therefore increases engine torque and fuel economy… or so the theory goes. But the key word here is optimise. You’re not adding a fuel source; you’re supplementing an existing one with a highly flammable substance. It’s said that hydrogen injection creates a cleaner burn, as well as causing less carbon build up and a reduction in coolant temperatures.
Of course, you’ve got to remember that this technology (commonly known as a dual fuel system, or HHO generator) shouldn’t be confused with a hydrogen fuel celled vehicle (FCV). Both applications share the term hydrogen fuel cell, but an HHO generator produces hydrogen and oxygen as a fuel supplement for a combustion engine, whereas an FCV uses the chemical reaction between oxygen and hydrogen to produce electricity, which then drives an electric motor. In the FCV’s case, stored hydrogen and oxygen is used as a fuel source to generate electricity, and water is formed as a by-product. We’re talking about a dual fuel system, okay?
The most convincing argument against HHO generators lies in the fact that the energy required to produce the gas (via electrolysis) is often greater than – or equal to – the energy gained from burning it. It’s a lot like using an electric motor to power a generator for the production of electricity – you’re consuming more energy than you’re producing. In this case, the hydrogen fuel cell consumes battery power while producing hydrogen gas, which in turn loads your 4×4’s alternator and thus makes your engine labour, resulting in increased fuel consumption.
The process is further complicated by heat generation. As the cell heats up (which they commonly do), the electrical resistance within the cell increases. This creates a vicious cycle: the hotter the cell gets, the greater its resistance, – and the hotter the cell gets. In some cases a poorly-designed fuel cell can draw up to 60 amps or more, putting tremendous strain on your vehicle’s alternator and engine.
However, Gasser’s argument is that hydrogen injection is not meant as a fuel replacement, but rather as something to enhance the combustion process – a dual fuel system, not unlike an LPG conversion. No combustion engine is entirely efficient; just about every diesel or petrol motor expels unburnt fuel from its exhaust. This wasted fuel contributes to emissions and carbon build-up within the motor. Hydrogen injection is said to stimulate the combustion process by raising the combustion temperature and ensuring a more efficient burn – fewer emissions, fewer carbon deposits, less wasted fuel and a greater increase in engine torque. In other words, the performance gains attributed to hydrogen gas injection are the result of formerly unburnt petrol or diesel now being used. You want just enough gas to supplement the combustion process, as anything extra will lead to inefficiency and will actually diminish engine performance.
There’s supporting evidence to prove this theory, as several universities have scientifically shown that hydrogen injection will enhance the performance of a combustion motor while contributing to cleaner emissions and reduced carbon deposits. There’s less agreement about whether the engine itself can be used to produce hydrogen gas efficiently through an energyintensive process like electrolysis.