In May, Aston Martin’s Rapide S completed the 24 Hours of Nurburgring endurance race while earning an unusual distinction: For more than 11 laps—about 182 miles—it didn’t burn a drop of gas. Instead, it consumed 59 pounds of hydrogen, becoming the first hydrogen-powered car to compete in an event sanctioned by the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile).
“It would’ve been easy to build a road car, run it on hydrogen, and say we’ve done it,” says Dave King, Aston Martin’s head of motorsport. “But we wanted to push the boundaries and run at least a full lap at a time at race speeds.” The company found that, in terms of cost, packaging, and range, hydrogen could effectively substitute for batteries in hybrid cars, enabling useful emissions-free range before fossil fuels kick in. “I think it’s a very feasible alternative for the future,” says King.
Hydrogen’s power density is about 30 to 40 percent less than that of gasoline, so the Rapide became the first car to get a turbocharged version of Aston’s 5.9-liter V12 engine (1), bumping output to around 500 horsepower in hydrogen mode. Race rules limit cars to 550 horsepower in the experimental class, so in gasoline mode the horsepower was artificially restricted to meet regulations.
The Rapide carries four carbon-fiber tanks (2) that hold 7.7 pounds of hydrogen. Two of the tanks are mounted where the passenger seat would be; trunk tanks with double the pressure should suffice in a production vehicle. Running at lower pressure allowed the team to quickly refuel under race conditions, so fill-ups took only 40 seconds.
Alset Global built the car’s hydrogen system and created the Alset Engine Operating Software (3) to manage the V12 engine’s transition between hydrogen and gasoline—which happened automatically and at race speed. “You’d feel a slight surge, but it was pretty seamless,” King says.
This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of Popular Science.