The UK Government has confirmed that it has approved the use on British roads of the world’s first digger to be powered by a hydrogen combustion engine. 

The Department for Transport (DfT) said special dispensation had been granted, under a vehicle special order, enabling the British construction equipment manufacturer JCB to test and use the hydrogen-powered backhoe loader on the country’s roads. 

The approval forms part of the UK Government’s broader plans to help decarbonise the country’s construction sector and local roads. It comes on the back of a new three-year programme that our transport consultants also recently reported on, Live Labs 2, powered by £30 million in government funding

What do we know about JCB’s new hydrogen-powered digger?   

The DfT said in its confirmation of the news that the vehicle special order, as granted by the Transport Secretary, entitles JCB to test the digger on the public highway. The department described the backhoe loader as “the first of its kind”, adding that it offered “a pioneering solution to help reduce emissions on construction sites.” 

JCB Chairman Lord Bamford hailed the vehicle as “a world first in our industry, a digger with a purpose-engineered internal combustion engine that uses hydrogen gas as the energy source. 

“It’s a real breakthrough – a zero CO2 fuel providing the power to drive the pistons in an internal combustion engine, a technology that’s been around for over 100 years, a technology that we are all familiar with.” 

A key support to broader decarbonisation and economic priorities 

The DfE said that the built environment was responsible for a quarter of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions, and said it was “vital” for the entire construction sector to seek to decarbonise at every stage. 

The Government was also keen to emphasise the potential economic benefits that would unfold from the approval of the digger’s use. According to the department, JCB has already created 150 jobs in the Midlands, and hundreds more new jobs are possible as the firm progresses its hydrogen project. 

In the words of Technology and Decarbonisation Minister Jesse Norman: “From cars to construction sites, industry has a vital role in decarbonising our economy and creating green jobs and prosperity. 

“JCB’s investment in greener equipment is a great example of how industry can make this happen, using alternative fuels to generate sustainable economic growth.” 

Describing the construction industry as “hard to decarbonise”, the Government said that JCB’s prototype hydrogen-powered backhoe loader was nonetheless “an important first step” in making this a reality. 

The Government said that hydrogen combustion machines could play a vital role in lowering carbon emissions, in environments where other types of clean power may not offer the desired level of practicality or efficiency. 

The Government cited as another example of its efforts to accelerate decarbonisation, the recent announcement of the second phase of the Tees Valley Hydrogen Hub, which it said built on previous commitments to look into methods of utilising hydrogen as an alternative fuel. 

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