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Students become world's first to build hydrogen-powered engine prototype: 'A very significant milestone'

"We started by reading all of the research and literature we could find, analyzing and cataloguing it all."

"We started by reading all of the research and literature we could find, analyzing and cataloguing it all."

Photo Credit: University of Bath

Major car manufacturers have been unable to make hydrogen-powered internal combustion engines widely available to consumers. However, a group of undergraduate students stepped in and built their own — reportedly the world's first time undergraduate students have accomplished the feat and got it running successfully, according to Interesting Engineering

This type of engine is innovative and encouraging because hydrogen is a carbon-neutral fuel. Unlike gasoline, hydrogen produces no carbon dioxide and contributes to larger sustainability goals of diversifying clean energy sources and curbing planet-overheating gas pollution. 

The development is especially timely considering the proposed ban on selling new gasoline and diesel vehicles in 2035. 

University of Bath engineering students used a sponsor-provided, modified single-cylinder gasoline engine as a starting point to create the hydrogen engine. Using a specialized control unit and hydrogen-specific fuel injectors, they reengineered the engine and switched it on with instant success. 

One of the students and team leaders, Samuel Ray, shared, "We started by reading all of the research and literature we could find, analyzing and cataloguing it all to understand it and prioritize what was possible for us to pull off, as a fairly small team." 

Hydrogen is among the most promising fuel sources on our planet because of how it could change the future of ground transportation and air travel. Honda recently developed a hybrid CR-V that runs on hydrogen and electricity rather than gasoline and electricity, but the tech is still rare to see in production. Clean energy developments like this could help to lead to the development of zero-emission vehicles, though, and reduce our society's dependence on dirty energy

Challenges exist in storing ample hydrogen in a car because of its high energy density per unit mass and low energy density per unit volume. To overcome these issues, the students could try compressing hydrogen at very high pressure or storing it as a liquid at minus 418 degrees Fahrenheit.  

To ensure its safety, the hydrogen engine must be tested outdoors and remotely controlled behind a protective panel.  

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"Getting the prototype engine running has been a very significant milestone in this project," said Dr. Kevin Robinson, the team's academic supervisor. "It's still early days, but we have completed about three hours of continuous operation so far, including several minutes at full load."

Editor's note: A previous version of this article used wording that made it read as though the prototype itself was the world's first hydrogen-powered combustion engine, rather than the students being the first undergraduates to build and operate one. We regret the error.

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