Research into the use of alternative fuels in heavy-duty combustion engines has been gathering momentum as the off-highway (OHW) industry pivots towards clean energy and looks for viable low/zero-carbon fuel replacements for diesel.
Against this backdrop comes the announcement of Mahle Powertrain’s plans to develop ammonia-powered engines that can replace conventional diesel powertrains. Funded by the UK Government’s Net Zero Innovation Portfolio, the project is expected to undergo the testing phase as early as 2023.
Could ammonia be the answer that the OHW industry has been looking for in its quest to decarbonize?
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In recent years, the OHW industry has exhibited greater dynamism in terms of alternative powertrain research. Over the past decade, OEMs, suppliers, and stakeholders have intensified research into replacing red diesel with biodiesel, hybrid electric, and battery-electric powertrains.
The sheer size and operational cycles of heavy equipment used in OHW applications in the construction, mining, and agriculture sectors have created several challenges in terms of refueling, charging infrastructure, and operation time. As a result, we can see several technologies targeting a short-term fix while developing low and zero-emission powertrains for OHW equipment.
In the UK, construction equipment applications account for around 8.4% of total red diesel consumption. Replacing existing diesel powertrains in OHW applications (construction, mining, and agriculture) will significantly impact total red diesel consumption and help the UK meet its climate change targets.
Mahle’s current plans to develop ammonia-powered powertrains cover two models – a dual fuel retrofit where both ammonia and diesel can be used and Mahle’s Jet Ignition (MJI) technology, which envisages a single-cylinder, ammonia-fueled engine.
Frost & Sullivan’s perspective is that while the technologies pose a significant threat to diesel engine manufacturers in the short- to medium-term, they will be competing with similar technologies in the UK and Europe.
For instance, JCB is currently working on a hydrogen dual-fuel engine for construction equipment. New Holland is set to launch a hydrogen dual-fuel tractor and is simultaneously, developing a methane-powered tractor. In addition, there is the prospect of Chinese OEMs developing and delivering dual fuel and hydrogen fuel technologies to target markets in Europe over the medium to long term.
While hydrogen fuel cell infrastructure is currently non-existent, we expect to see it emerge as a long-term fix. We anticipate dual-fuel, hybrid hydrogen, and hybrid-electric to pose strong competition to ammonia-fueled powertrains.
What does this mean for Mahle? We believe Mahle could chalk up a key win by accelerating the development of the ammonia dual fuel retrofit and quickly moving to target unmet customer needs. This strategy would enable easier adoption since it facilitates upgrades of current machinery without the need to invest in new equipment.
We foresee fleets and end customers leaning towards emission reduction technologies in the future, mainly focusing on Scope 3 emissions of GHG protocols. Even though after-treatment methods enable emission reduction, the potential to achieve or implement zero-emission will gain attractiveness in the short term.
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