Porsche Readies Self For Hydrogen Fuel Cell Car…Maybe!

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Will they or won’t they? Rumors of a Porsche hydrogen fuel cell car have begun swirling around the automotive press, following a new scoop from Car Buzz. If it does pan out, Porsche’s new hydrogen fuel cell car will most likely be unaffordable to all but the privileged few, but that’s ok. After all, the Tesla Motor Company started life as the niche producer of sporty battery-powered electric vehicles with a $200,000 price point, right?

Porsche Is Hydrogen-Curious

CleanTechnica caught a whiff of Porsche’s interest in hydrogen-powered mobility back in May of 2022, when we noticed that the company was already dipping a toe in the electrofuels field.

The e-fuels group includes green hydrogen fuel produced from water, with renewable energy providing the electricity to run the process. It also includes synthetic hydrocarbon fuels, which can be made with captured carbon as well as green hydrogen to complete the sustainability loop.

Fueling an internal combustion engine with hydrogen is not the same as using hydrogen in a fuel cell, but it’s getting a bit closer.

From Hydrogen ICE’s to Fuel Cells

Sure enough, in August of 2022 Porsche presented the results of a study indicating the feasibility of deploying hydrogen in a combustion engine.

The study, conducted by the company’s Porsche Engineering Group, was aimed at developing a hydrogen combustion engine that “aims to match the power and torque of current high-performance gasoline engines,” while also conserving fuel and cutting emissions down to the level of ambient air.

That’s a bit more complicated than it may seem. Hydrogen does not produce greenhouse gas emissions when burned at high heat, but it can produce nitrogen oxides.

“In terms of optimising emissions by the hydrogen engine, the experts at Porsche Engineering therefore concentrated on nitrogen oxides,” Porsche explains. The solution was to  develop an “extremely lean” colder combustion system.

At the time, Porsche also upped its interest in producing synthetic hydrocarbon e-fuels with renewable energy.  In December of 2022 the company announced the launch of a new wind-powered e-fuel pilot plant in Chile, aimed at producing a drop-in replacement for gasoline (see lots more of CleanTechnica’s Porsche coverage here).

In January of 2023 the plot thickened, when Wards Auto took note of the company’s continued interest in hydrogen fuel under the subheading, “Porsche has developed a hydrogen-powered internal-combustion engine to replace its gasoline-powered V-8 and a synthetic fuel stock that replaces gasoline.”

All together this may seem a bit confusing, but Ward’s reporting suggests that Porsche could do both. After all, even if the company were to pivot its factories entirely into hydrogen engines overnight, its existing ICE customers would still need gasoline for their gasmobiles. On the green-o-meter, synthetic gasoline from green hydrogen and captured carbon beats extracting more oil from the ground.

Porsche may also be eyeing the potential for producing e-gasoline for the general market as well, which could depend on whether or not regular old gasoline is eventually banished in favor of more sustainable versions.

What About That Hydrogen Fuel Cell Car?

As for the hydrogen fuel cell rumor, that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. Hydrogen fuel cell cars are electric cars, just like their battery-powered cousins. The difference is that fuel cells generate electricity on-the-go through a reaction between hydrogen and ambient air in the presence of a catalyst, while batteries receive their charge from a stationary source.

Back in April of 2020, Porsche’s head of research and development, Michael Steiner, threw cold water on the fuel cell idea in an interview with reporter Christiaan Hetzner of Automotive News Europe.

“How attractive are fuel cell models to Porsche, considering that the stacks are lighter than batteries?” Hetzner asked.

“We continue to examine it, but at the moment this technology is not suited to Porsche,” Steiner answered. “For one the typical output of a stack is about 100 kilowatts, so if you want more power you still need to include a large battery to provide peak output. That means you need even more room for their installation.”

“Secondly, the system’s overall energy efficiency is very poor because it takes a lot of electricity to split water into hydrogen, distribute it to fuel stations and convert it back to electricity,” Steiner added, referring to electrolysis systems.

Steiner’s concerns were valid at the time, but the cost of electrolyzers has come down considerably in just the past few years since that interview, and so has the cost of renewable energy to provide the electricity.

Yes, What About That Hydrogen Fuel Cell Car?

Porsche’s more recent e-fuels venture answers the concerns about electrolysis, and on January 11 of 2024 — that’s today or yesterday, depending on when you read this — Sebastian Cenizo of Car Buzz got the scoop on a solution for the problem of needing more room.

“If a new filing discovered by CarBuzz at the German Patent and Trade Mark Office is anything to go by, Porsche is considering producing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, ” Cenizo reported.

Fuel cells are a mature technology, but applying them to a vehicle involves overcoming some engineering challenges, such as making room for the hydrogen fuel tanks and reducing the cost of raw materials. Those, Cenizo observed, were the twin focus of the patent filing.

If you are surprised by the news, join the club. Cenizo also noted that evidence of Porsche’s interest in a hydrogen fuel cell car has never surfaced on the Car Buzz radar before, except for a single unsubstantiated report back in 2015.

“Basically, whether we’re talking hydrogen combustion or fuel cells, Porsche is open to anything but is far from committing. It’s much more interested in hybridization and/or synthetic fuels,” Cenzio concluded.

Next Steps For Porsche

If fuel cells are not the road to Porsche’s electrification dreams, it will always have batteries.

On November 11, Porsche took note of its progress on developing a battery-powered version of its Macan SUV, which launched 10 years ago.

“As the first Porsche model built on the new Premium Platform Electric (PPE), the SUV is a completely new development,” Porsche enthused. “The test process to ensure the perfect coordination of all components and systems is accordingly meticulous.”

“Porsche places great importance on real-world testing with camouflaged prototypes. At the same time, simulations in both the virtual world and wind tunnel are increasingly precise and play an ever-greater role. This is particularly true when it comes to making a new Porsche not only sportier, but also more efficient,” they added.

If a Porsche fuel cell car ever hits the road, expect a similar attention to detail. Fuel cell cars have struggled to increase their footprint in the zero emission vehicle market, but signs of activity are stirring in the SUV area with BMW and Honda among those in the running.

It’s also worth noting that Toyota has also been noodling around in the hydrogen combustion engine area for high performance racing cars, in addition to holding the torch for street-legal hydrogen fuel cell cars.

Just saying…

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Photo (cropped): Porsche 911 GT3 sports car courtesy of Porsche.

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