Mazda: hydrogen and wankel engine alongside e-cars

More than just electric cars: why mazda also relies on hydrogen and the wankel engine

professional photo Elias Holdenried

  • While VW, daimler, renault& co. Wanting to drive purely electrically into the future, mazda is keeping almost all options open technologically. The brand is thus pursuing a similar concept to that of its cooperation partner toyota.
  • In addition to the obvious e-cars, the japanese are working on classic inline-sixes, hybrid drives, e-fuels and hydrogen burners.
  • According to rumors, they even relied on the legendary wankel engine for the latter. The design was considered the engine of the future in the sixties and seventies, but has been a unique mazda feature for decades.
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When it comes to the powertrain of the future, japan is increasingly becoming the island group of technology openness. While the majority of european, chinese and u.s. automakers are fully committed to battery-electric propulsion, most japanese are going their own way. Only nissan, like its competitors from the occident, is fully on the electric track.

Toyota was initially reluctant to store the drive energy of its models in large lithium-ion batteries. In the meantime, the world’s largest carmaker has also announced a family of purely electric models, but the company’s own future strategy continues to focus on fuel cells powered by H2.

Mazda: hydrogen and Wankel engine alongside e-cars

Mazda is taking a very broad approach to powertrains

Cooperation partner mazda is pursuing a similar course, also using hydrogen, but going it alone technically in several ways and giving the "BEV" theme a somewhat greater significance. In addition to plug-in hybrids, the Japanese are also planning to launch three pure e-cars between 2022 and 2025. However, these will still be on a mixed platform that the manufacturer also uses for internal combustion engines. A modular basis tailored from the ground up for battery-electric cars will not follow until the middle of the decade with the so-called "skyactiv EV scalable architecture".

Compared to its competitors, mazda’s electrification goals are rather timid. Pure e-cars are expected to account for a quarter of total sales in 2030, while the remaining 75 percent is expected to be made up of partially electrified vehicles. In the case of the latter, the 50-strong.000 employees, relies in part on the know-how of hybrid specialist toyota.

With classic virtues into the luxury class

While other carmakers, such as daimler and audi, have already stopped the development of new internal combustion engines, mazda still sees potential for large-volume units and, in addition to conventional four-cylinder engines, is also designing a classic straight-six, of which there will be a compression-ignition counterpart in addition to the gasoline engine and whose displacement is expected to be between 3.0 and 3.3 liters. However, the Japanese are not only aiming to please enthusiasts, but above all to gain a foothold in the luxury class of automobiles.

To this end, they have developed an all-wheel-drive platform especially for large model series, from which their partner toyota with its premium brand lexus is also expected to benefit. The technical framework opens up new possibilities for mazda. This could also serve as the basis for a coupe that fans have been longing for. Several design studies have already hinted at such a model in recent years.

The carmaker wants to move into higher vehicle segments, where it is also relying on the Kodo design typical of the brand

The Japanese are part of the e-fuel alliance

Since mazda still sees great potential in the internal combustion engine and is investing a lot of money in the further development of this supposedly doomed technology, it is hardly surprising that the carmaker wants to use it as long as possible. Even if mass mobility of the future appears to be electric, synthetic fuels could save the internal combustion engine, at least for niche new vehicles, and drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the existing passenger car fleet.

At least if electricity from renewable energies is used in their manufacture, which is still rarely the case at present. It is therefore hardly surprising that the Japanese are involved in several research projects and studies on this topic in their home country, or at least support them financially. In addition to hydrogen-based e-fuels, the focus here is on biofuel from microalgae. Since the beginning of february, mazda has been a member of the international lobby group "efuel alliance," which also includes bosch and ZF.

Mazda: hydrogen and Wankel engine alongside e-cars

H2 burner instead of fuel cell

Rumor has it that Mazda not only wants to use hydrogen to produce e-fuels, but also to burn the gaseous element directly in the combustion chambers of its gasoline engines. This would take the manufacturer in a different direction from its partner toyota. The car giant relies on the more efficient fuel cell for its H2 series model mirai and uses the technology of the hydrogen burner only in motor sports.

The speculation is supported by the fact that mazda has recently registered several engine designations. Above all, the name "e-SKYACTIV R-energy" raises questions. While the other two designations obviously refer to electric and hybrid models, the name is associated with the topic of hydrogen by Japanese trade media. In addition, the carmaker has registered a logo in the shape of a rotating piston. the latter is the most important component of a rotary engine.

The Wankel engine as a bridge to the company’s history

As the trade magazine "auto motor und sport" reports, mazda managers hinted at the beginning of august that a near-production prototype of a hydrogen burner with electric turbocharger could be ready in about three years for the first time. The Wankel engine would be suitable for operation with H2 at mazda, as it is quieter than a reciprocating engine, offers fewer hotspots for unintentional ignition and is safer overall. Currently, an engine of this type is used as a range extender in the mazda MX-30 electric car. The small gasoline engine charges the battery while the car is in motion, thus increasing its range.

The japanese were able to gain initial experience with the drive at the beginning of the millennium. In 2003, mazda’s research department converted the wankel engine of an rX8 to hydrogen. However, one of the main problems of the hydrogen burner again became apparent: the power yield is significantly lower compared to the classic gasoline engine.

But the rotary engine is a constant in mazda’s brand history. The japanese, together with NSU and citroen, are among the pioneers of the technology and brought Felix wankel’s invention into series production in 1967 with the mazda cosmo. While the other two manufacturers quickly abandoned the drive, mazda has remained faithful to it, with a few interruptions, until today. Models like the RX7 from the nineties still have a large fan base today.

The openness to technology could pay off

Overall, mazda obviously wants to keep all options open in its future strategy. Under current conditions, this is more of a disadvantage because some of the development budget needed for electric drives is being swallowed up in research on other technologies. Politically and ecologically, all the signs are currently pointing to electric power. In terms of efficiency, the battery-electric drive is currently far superior to the fuel cell and H2 burners.

However, if sufficient green hydrogen does become available at some point, the tide could well turn. Hydrogen and e-fuels would become a serious alternative despite the comparatively poor energy balance. At this point in time, it is rather unlikely that the courageous openness of the Japanese to new technologies will pay off in the end. But it is not completely out of the question.

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