The time is ripe
Thomas Korn has been working on hydrogen engines for many years. As the founder of Keyou, he now believes the breakthrough is on the horizon.
Sun and water everywhere
The sun shines 5000 times more energy onto the earth than humans use. And 71 per cent of the earth’s surface is covered with water. For Thomas Korn, the solution to many of the energy and environmental problems facing the world is plain to see. He gained a formative experience in this regard when he studied physical enginee- ring at Munich University of Applied Sciences after first training as an IT technician. While there, he investi- gated how dirty water can be made clean again. »Even back then, I thought that we were working at the wrong end. We need to start where the con- tamination first arises,« says Korn. That’s why, for Thomas Korn, hydrogen represents the ultimate fuel for com- bustion engines, because it doesn’t contain any carbon and burns without creating any CO2.
This energy-rich gas has followed him along every step of his career. During his studies, Korn completed an internship at utility company Bayernwerk, which operates a hydrogen test plant together with BMW and industrial gas producer Linde. While completing his internship, the lead engineer offered him the oppor- tunity to work for the BMW R&D team, allowing him to take his first step into the automotive industry. He wrote his dissertation on remote diagnostics for a hydrogen vehicle. And at a time when no one was yet talking about an energy transition, Korn was already convinced that hydrogen would be a key element of the mobility of the future. He played a major role in developing a BMW 7 Series with a hydrogen engine before moving to the USA with the company in 2005 to build its hydrogen vehicle programme in California. However, statutory regula- tions thwarted the project’s success and, a few years later, BMW withdrew from its hydrogen combustion engine plans completely. It wasn’t yet the right time. »But for me, it was clear that there was potential in hydrogen and that I wanted to stick with it. So I left BMW and gained experience on how to build a company at Alset,« says Korn. For Alset, a spin-off from Graz University of Tech- nology, he developed dual-fuel engines and converted an Aston Martin to hydro- gen combustion; the vehicle then went on to successfully complete the 24-hour race at the Nürburgring. But while the technology was solid, the financing was fragile – Alset filed for bankruptcy in 2014.
One year later, Korn founded Keyou to make his vision of emission-free mobility a reality. In a commercial vehicle, where robustness and cost efficiency are all important, Korn maintains that the hydrogen combustion engine is superior to the fuel cell, or the electric powertrain in any case. Korn built up contacts and convinced investors of the technology’s value – no easy task given that battery electric powertrains were initially seen as the only techno- logy of the future. Engine manufacturer Deutz provided an engine for test bench runs and the initial results were surprisingly good. And things progressed from there: a hydrogen engine co-developed by Korn based on the Deutz unit has an efficiency of 44.5 per cent and holds the world record for being the most efficient combustion engine in the commercial vehicle sector. »But there’s more to come!« says Korn with a mischievous smile – 50 per cent is possible, he claims. His engineers are developing components and combustion processes that are capable of achieving the Euro 6 emission standard without the need for expensive exhaust gas aftertreatment systems.
Interest in this alternative fuel is growing
The CO2 legislation and the hydrogen strategy of the German government are playing into Keyou’s hands. The company has acquired several millions of euros from investors and Korn now has 70 employees. When and where they work isn’t important to this CEO, as long as the agreed milestones are reached and the quality is there. Flat hierarchies, agility and short decision-making processes are what define start-ups. The CEO’s door is always open.
In Bad Dürkheim, Keyou runs several engine test benches together with its partner KST Motorenversuch; yet its design and simulation teams are based in Munich. Keyou joined FVV at the start of 2020: »FVV offers a very interesting network for our developers,« says Korn. »There are a number of topics on which my colleagues share their thoughts and experiences with others. And we are certainly in a position to make a contribution too.« The greatest challenge halting the hydrogen combustion engine’s breakthrough is the expensive storage technology involved. However, Korn has established another company that is working on new types of storage which would enable the costs to be reduced significantly. The concept is based on changing stations and exchange tanks that are filled centrally so that a region doesn’t have to have lots of expensive hydrogen filling stations; instead, it would just have one filling station that is used to full capacity and quickly pays for itself. However, it’s not the time for that just yet.
The first two prototype vehicles using Keyou engines hit the road in the summer of 2022 – an 18-tonne truck and a public bus. Next year, eight vehicles are set to be put into service with customers, and 48 a year later. Keyou is targeting 2025 for its general market launch. However, there isn’t yet a market or the infrastructure – everything needs to be established first. Yet Korn is confident: »There will quickly be a business case for hauliers and transport companies, as we are a competitive alternative to the diesel engine. Toll exemptions will more than offset the costs of converting the vehicles.«
The engineer set out with the conviction that it is possible to make a difference and contribute to the energy transition even as a small company. »Every generation can make the world a little bit better. We’re doing it with hydrogen,« says Thomas Korn. The 54-year-old is working hard to make his vision a reality, as well as to secure the future of his two children. Yet every now and then, he treats himself to a little peace and quiet. After heading to a small mountain stream, he casts his fly rod and concentrates only on the bait. No stress. No street noise. Just the here and now.
Thomas Korn, born in 1968, studied physical engineering at Munich University of Applied Sciences.
After working at BMW for many years, followed by a stint at Alset, Korn established Keyou in 2015 together with his partners Alvaro Sousa and Markus Schneider. Their objective is to develop an emission-free and cost-effective hydrogen powertrain for commercial vehicle.