Dreams of Formula 1’s Hydrogen Era
Building an innovative propulsion platform will lead Formula 1 towards a brighter future where racing is still competitive, and the world is cleaner because of it.
After many years of racing, it’s time that we say goodbye to one of Formula 1’s most iconic staples — the internal combustion engine. We’ll miss the roaring sounds that we’ve become accustomed to over the last 70 years. But it’s time for something better to take its place — the Hydrogen fuel cell, an exciting technology that will drive the series towards a brighter and renewable future.
Since the beginning of the series in 1950, the internal combustion engine, or ICE for short, has been the technology moving Formula 1 cars towards their performance limits. The usage of carbon emission producing machines have always been a necessity — there wasn’t an alternative that could create enough power to win races. Instead, engine technology went through changes that would ultimately increase performance and help mitigate climate change’s negative impacts with clever fuel chemistry.
The Evolution of the F1’s Internal Combustion Engine
The evolution of the internal combustion engine has been constant throughout the decades. The series has used various combinations that spanned running 8, 10, and even 12 cylinders to power the cars. Sometimes even turbos would be thrown in the mix. As time moved along and new engine technology advancements popped up, smaller and fuel-efficient engines eventually became a reality that Formula 1 headed towards.
The new engine specifications would concern some fans. Would they be less performant? What about the sound? And while it’s true that the sound dampened a bit — making the series more family-friendly — it allowed the teams to think of a more fuel-efficient system without compromising performance. These changes would be the blueprint of the new hybrid era.
At the start of the 2014 season, the hybrid formula brought the loud eight-cylinder engine down to gentler sounding six. It also introduced a complex system of batteries and motor generator units responsible for capturing excess heat and kinetic energy. The stored energy would make up for the engine’s smaller design, allowing for a burst of extra oomph when the driver needed it.
This new formula was a world away from previous engines that were designed with simplicity in mind. The increase in the hybrid system’s complexity led to larger budgets. This financial constraint made it difficult for some teams hoping to keep up with the likes of Ferrari, Mercedes, and Red Bull. Mercedes, having a larger budget than most teams, perfected the hybrid system and secured seven constructor championships.
But the hybrid specifications remain — with a much-needed update on the way. In 2022, each constructor will be given a maximum spending cap for the season, helping teams with smaller budgets a fighting chance at competing with the big three. But these changes are an intermediate step towards the future of the series in need of a giant leap.
The hybrid era has been profoundly positive for the series. Putting aside the system’s inherent complexity, the hybrid era has produced some of the most powerful and performant machines that Formula 1 has ever seen. Records have been broken at an astonishing pace.
But it’s time to move on. With climate change considerations at the forefront of our minds, Formula 1 needs to build better racing technologies aimed at our planet in mind. What a better way than to stay on the bleeding edge of engineering and technology and create a new propulsion platform based on clean energy.
Let’s call it the Hydrogen Hybrid era.
Understanding Hydrogen Basics
Before we get into details of my proposed Hydrogen era, we have to dive a bit deeper into the science of Hydrogen and how it could be used with a Formula 1 car. We’ll take a quick look at the science of the element itself, gain a rudimentary understanding of how fuel cells work, and what a platform using both would look like.
If you glance at a periodic table on the wall of a chemistry class, you will find Hydrogen, an element listed on the top left side of the chart. Being the most abundant element of them all, Hydrogen makes up 73% of the universe. This means we’ll never run out of it, unlike the fossil fuels that we’ve been using for decades.
The Hydrogen atom consists of a few fundamental building blocks. The center of the element — the nucleus — consists of one positively charged particle called a proton, a neutrally charged one called a neutron, and a negatively charged particle called an electron. Together, the particles make up the building blocks of a single Hydrogen atom.
The inversely charged particles of the proton and electron are naturally attracted to each other by something called the electromagnetic force — one of the primary forces in the universe.
You can think of the two particles as magnets, wishing to be brought together when close. This attraction keeps the particles bound together and creates a structure that makes Hydrogen distinct from the other elements. Only having one proton, neutron, and electron, the natural simplicity of the element makes Hydrogen easier to use for our purpose.
How can we use this element with our new propulsion platform? Since a Hydrogen atom is simple, we can take its individual pieces, pull them apart, and use them to our liking. In this case, the electron is the key to helping us propel a car forward. Electrons are responsible for what we call electricity. Armed with this knowledge, we can use the negatively charged particles to produce a current and convert energy into a motor’s mechanical energy. The electric motor will be responsible for driving the wheels of the Formula 1 car.
A Hydrogen atom is simple, but how can an electron be captured in the first place? That’s where the magic of fuel cells becomes important in making this possible.
The Hydrogen Fuel Cell
In comparison to the current ICE hybrid platform, a fuel cell system is simple to understand. A Hydrogen fuel cell converts chemical energy into electrical energy.
To understand this, let’s build upon our understanding of how this system works:
- Hydrogen gas enters the fuel cell
- The proton and electron are split apart from each other
- The electron takes a separate path and is used to generate a current of electricity that turns an electric motor
- Finally, the particles rejoin together and mix with Oxygen to create water.
That sounds simple. Let’s get more specific
As Hydrogen gas enters the fuel cell, it encounters various special layers of materials that create the electricity needed. These layers — also called a Proton Exchange Membrane or the fuel cell stack — are responsible for splitting the Hydrogen particles and moving them around in a deterministic way. Driving the particles apart allows the fuel cell to capture and guide the electrons to a place where its electrical energy can be used.
The fuel stack itself consists of a few parts:
The anode is a spacious area where Hydrogen gas enters the system. The electrolyte is responsible for splitting the particles of the atom apart. As the Hydrogen atom hits the catalyst, most often made of platinum, the proton and electron are ripped apart from each other. This separation leaves a negatively charged electron and a positively charged Hydrogen ion. An ion is a positively charged atom. Since the electron has been split from the atom, the remaining particles become net positive in their charge and become an ion.
The Hydrogen ion can’t do much by itself, but it needs to continue moving through the fuel cell stack to meet up with the electron again. The path of the Hydrogen ion heads through the membrane, a special polymer material that only accepts positively charged ions. Since an electron is negatively charged and isn’t considered an ion at all, the material won’t allow one to follow the ion. Both of them say goodbye for now. But they’ll meet again soon.
Since the electron cannot enter the membrane, where does it go? It needs to take another path to meet back up with its missing counterpart. In this system, the fuel cell is designed to allow electrons to pass through another wire and use its electrical current to drive an electric motor. The electrical energy turns the rotor and produces enough torque to begin spinning a connected set of gears connected to an axle driving the wheels. This turning motion is no different than an internal combustion engine doing the same. Instead of heat thermal energy, this system uses electrical energy to create rotation.
Once the electrons have moved through the electric motor, they’re eager to meet back up with their long-lost ions. While the electrons were moving through the motor, the ions moved through the membrane, another polymer material that only allows ions to pass through. As the two get close to meeting back up, the fuel cell’s cathode is pulling in Oxygen. When the ion, electron, and Oxygen atoms come together, they join to create H2O — or better known as water. The water leaves the fuel cell system towards an emission pipe of some sort. And that’s it. The potential chemical energy was safely converted into electrical energy resulting in a safe bi-product of water. No carbon emissions.
This conversion of energy repeatedly continues until the fuel cell stops receiving Hydrogen gas from its onboard tank. The less gas entering the system signifies fewer atoms are available to be split into ions and electrons, effectively stopping the motor from spinning due to the lack of electrical current. You can think of the same thing happening when the internal combustion engine stops receiving enough gasoline to continue its function.
So what would a Hydrogen platform look like? Since we have a deeper understanding of how the system works, let’s see how it could be brought to life in a Formula 1 car.
Imagining a Fuel Cell Platform
First, we’d need a Hydrogen fuel tank to store the gas for the race. Since the Hydrogen will need to be stored at high pressure, special materials will be required. A tank made with carbon fiber may be a first good step. The car manufacturer Toyota has designed and used tanks with carbon fiber with their Hydrogen fueled vehicle, the Mirai. If Toyota ever wanted to get back into Formula 1, this may be an easy entry point in helping out.
Next, we’d need the fuel stack itself. I could see the FIA going in multiple directions in regards to this. They could source, design, and deploy a standard fuel cell stack that all teams would use for the first generation of the technology. Each team could also research and design their own. If teams took the latter solution, they’d be responsible for sourcing materials and components to maximize the cars’ performance. If Formula E, an all-electric series is any indication, allowing the standardizing large pieces of the design would be cost-effective. On the other hand, standardizing would possibly prevent innovation.
Adding a battery would be next. Since the beginning of the hybrid era, teams are required to design a system that brings in fuel combustion and multiple energy recovery systems. And while these systems have been notoriously difficult to manage, a similar one with Hydrogen would be simple in comparison. A version of MGU-K would remain, allowing the driver to collect energy under braking and deploying it to the electric motor at a later point in the race. Deploying this energy in certain areas on the track, such as the familiar drag reduction system (DRS) zones, would require the drivers to be strategic when using it.
The platform wouldn’t be complete without the car’s brain, a power control unit, allowing everything to work together in harmony. This part of the system would be responsible for converting the direct current created from the split electrons into alternating current, which can be used by the motor. With an auxiliary battery, the power control unit will also need to manage the kinetic energy of the DC current for quick storage.
Another component that I haven’t mentioned in detail includes using an intake system that would purify the air entering the fuel cell. This may be required for the fuel cell to produce water as a bi-product consistently. Something else to consider is a set of heat management systems required for AC/DC and DC/DC conversions. Ensuring the system doesn’t overheat would be incredibly helpful when pushing the car to its track limits. There’s nothing worse than the need to retire when you have a shot at a podium.
Like Formula E, teams would also focus on changing and updating computer code that’d help dictate strategies for the weekend. Doing so would be cheaper than needing to change out parts of an ICE that broken during practice or qualifying. I know I’m simplifying this, but you get the point.
My proposed Hydrogen Hybrid system would introduce a handful of new components while keeping a few familiar ones. There are plenty of components I’m leaving out right now, but those gaps would be filled in as time goes along. What matters most is that this system would be simple in comparison to the current hybrid system.
A Way Forward
With the looming disaster of climate change upon us, the racing series should begin to look for solutions that will drive us towards a clean and renewable energy future. Green Hydrogen, being a clean energy source and without any carbon emissions, is a great first step.
I realize that Hydrogen isn’t the easiest element to extract and that some methods of extraction aren’t necessarily efficient or clean either. But what could be better than a fresh challenge for Formula 1 teams to figure out? A part of Formula 1’s allure is that teams are constantly exploring the outer edges of engineering. With the challenge of Hydrogen, the series could potentially find breakthroughs that may have been sitting in front of us. Imagine a racing series — of all places — figuring out efficient ways to create green Hydrogen. The prospects of that outcome are exciting.
Regarding Formula 1 cars, a platform based on Hydrogen would stretch existing race engineering to its limits. It would require teams to completely rethink and design a propulsion system they’ve become accustomed to over the decades. The FIA should declare that 2028 will be when the rules change. It would give teams time to prepare effectively. Building a winning competitor can’t happen overnight, unfortunately. Teams will require more time than realized.
Using a similar Hydrogen system as I described earlier, teams could take lessons from their Formula E counterparts. Learning more about the already developed battery and motor technologies would move the process along more quickly. Some teams like Mercedes already have their hand in both Formula 1 and Formula E. And if you think Mercedes has been a dominating force during the hybrid era, imagine what they’ll do in the next one. This is why more teams should start researching these technologies before it becomes too late.
Platforms based on 100% battery power sound great, but it may not be enough for what Formula 1 needs. Although planned on purpose, Formula E races are held within city limits. These cars aren’t necessarily designed for a standard Formula 1 track. There are power density, battery regeneration, ad heat management issues to take into consideration. And while it doesn’t bother me as much, the Formula E cars don’t go as fast as Formula 1 cars — a common complaint I’ve heard from time to time.
A platform based on Hydrogen would be key in filling that gap. With a higher power density compared to batteries, the need for a short race duration would disappear. We might even see refueling become a thing again, depending on the size of the Hydrogen tanks. Coupled with the onboard batteries, we’d get to enjoy boosts of stored energy for overtaking and overall race strategy. But let’s make sure that Fan Boost never becomes a thing in Formula 1. Please.
As I imagine what a Hydrogen era would look like, I continue to think of what influence onboard computers would have on the platform. Many weekend decisions of how the machine would work would rely on programmers changing code to ensure the driver has the best system at their fingertips. This sounds exciting to me. The idea of making iterative code changes over a weekend could mean winning the race, being stuck in the middle of the pack, or not finishing at all. In this era, the problem of winning goes well beyond just the mechanical aspects of the cars and bleeds into the digital side of things. It fits what the future of motorsport should look like.
It’s also worth noting that Formula 1 logistics would play into a Hydrogen strategy too. Formula 1 teams travel to countries all over the world throughout the year. The logistics needed to haul entire teams from one place to another requires heavy vehicles that could benefit from using Hydrogen. While batteries for heavy transport work to an extent, problems with maximum weight limits on roads continue to be a problem. The weight of a Hydrogen tank versus a comparable battery pack is night and day.
For teams declaring that Hydrogen will power all future logistics would be like planting a large flag in the ground for the series. It’d be a positive PR message to other industries: The most popular race series in the world is using it, so why aren’t you?
The Hydrogen platform is the future of Formula 1. It allows teams to build something new and push engineering and technology limits once again. And while many of the details of how the system would work still require more attention, I see teams pulling off the feat if they begin researching and developing a platform today. Any additional time spent with internal combustion engines is not worth the time or money.
The Hydrogen Era is Next
I admit that Hydrogen isn’t perfect and has its flaws. But so does the internal combustion engine. While powerful in performance and efficiency, carbon emissions remain the antagonist for a future that looks towards something better. The current hybrid engines aren’t enough to win the day.
Formula 1 has always been a place where we can be in awe of engineering and technology. It’s a breeding ground proving that ideas can become solutions, and solutions can become a positive change that goes beyond the sake of competition. And while change is difficult, it’s also necessary. Building a new Hydrogen platform will lead the series towards a bright future where racing is still competitive, the cars sound and look amazing, and the world all more cleaner because of it.
Hi there! My name is Cory, and I’ve always been fascinated by how things work. Since the beginning of high school, I’ve always been a writer. I got my first taste of being published in a large newspaper, the Indianapolis Star, at 15 years old.
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