EuroScan, my monthly column for the Innovation&Design section of BusinessWeek Online, is published today here. It reports on a test-drive of the Hy-Light, a zero-emission fuel-cell car developed in Switzerland that drives 130 km/h and refuels at a solar-powered pump that may one day be a household appliance. Here the full column.
While every carmaker in the world is tailing the successful Toyota Prius by developing low-emission hybrid models of various kinds (flex-fuel; gasoline-electric; gasoline-natural gas; gasoline-hydrogen), the real innovation in automotive is taking place in a nondescript industrial building on the outskirts of the Swiss town of Fribourg.
There, recently, Pierre Varenne sat me behind the wheel of a small prototype called Hy-Light (picture right) and told me to drive. I found myself in a silent car with great speed and acceleration and amazing stability, but no gear box, clutch, or anti-roll bar. And it produces zero air pollution. As we stopped beside a group of solar panels, Varenne pointed and said: "That's the fueling station."
Switzerland may seem an unlikely home for the reinvention of the auto industry, since there are no Swiss carmakers. Yet that also frees Varenne from the pressures of domestic car and oil conglomerates, creating an ideal environment for his project. This soft-spoken engineer with sharp opinions believes that the only way to truly reinvent the car and make it sustainable is to also reimagine the system that procures the energy to power it. "We need to create 'clean' cars as well as 'clean' ways to generate the energy," he says.
Working for tiremaker Michelin, Varenne runs a small group of researchers who are really thinking differently about the future of the car and of mobility. And they have a real car to show, not just a concept: The Hy-Light is registered with the Swiss department of motor vehicles (hence, it complies with all existing regulations), carries a regular plate, and has been discreetly travelling the Swiss roads and highways and showing up at specialized fairs for a couple of years now.
The Hy-Light is a car built around a hydrogen fuel cell, meaning it generates electricity through a basic chemical reaction involving hydrogen and oxygen. The gases are stored in two specially developed tanks (the hydrogen is pressurized and its tank can withstand the direct shot of a Swiss Army rifle). Probably the only drawback of the vehicle's design is the need to fill two tanks, which currently takes roughly eight minutes total.
The Michelin prototype is a catalog of clean-tech innovations. The key novelty is its "active wheel": the electric motors (which weigh a few kilos each) and the suspensions are lodged inside the wheels (picture left). "We have designed a system made of a central energy production unit (the fuel cell) and two or four peripheral energy usage units (the motors in the wheels)," explains Pierre Varenne. "In between, there are only electric cables."
The fuel cell used in the Hy-Light prototype was developed by the Paul Scherrer Institute, a leading Swiss research center. What sets it apart from most other automotive fuel cells (such as the one in the GM Sequel) is that it uses pure oxygen from a tank. Most fuel cells suck oxygen from the surrounding air, but that approach requires an onboard compressor and a system for controlling air quality — all of which lowers the efficiency of the power system. According to Varenne, the Hy-Light method increases the efficiency of the fuel cell by almost one-third. Michelin is now working on the next iteration of the fuel cell.
Electric motors have an advantage in that they can become energy generators. In the case of the Hy-Light, when the car slows down or the driver brakes, the kinetic energy produced by the vehicle's motion is captured and stored, to be released when the driver accelerates. The energy is stored in supercapacitors: an ingenious compromise between a battery (which can store a lot of energy but isn't good at delivering bursts of power) and traditional capacitors (which offer phenomenal power but little storage). Made by Maxwell in Switzerland, this technology increases the car's power for acceleration without increasing its energy consumption.
The Hy-Light is packed with sensors that relay data to a central processor controlling the motors and the suspension. When I drove it, I took some turns at high speed, and was surprised by the car's stability. The electronics in the wheels, I was told by Pierre-Alain Magne, the engineer/test pilot, are designed to monitor the stress of rounding a corner and to compensate for brake pitching.
While the advantages of lodging the engines and a lot of electronics in the wheels are clear, the design also raises a question: By putting these systems closer to the ground, doesn't the design expose them to water, snow, mud, and shocks? Varenne acknowledges that that's something they haven't thoroughly tested yet.
In its current incarnation, the Hy-Light weighs 850 kilograms, maxes out at 130 km/h (80 miles-per-hour), can accelerate to 100 km/h in less than 12 seconds, and can travel 300 km on one tank (well, two). This compares to a mass-produced medium-sized car. The key difference: To travel 100 km, the Hy-Light uses the energy-equivalent of less than 2.5 liters, or half a gallon, of gasoline, and its only byproduct is steam, created when the hydrogen and oxygen are combined.
Beyond working on the car, Varenne and his team have their eyes set on something bigger. When it comes to the future of mobility, the really tricky thing is the fueling and charging infrastructure. They see the car as a piece of a larger energy puzzle, and are trying to devise ways to power it in the least invasive and most sustainable way possible. Currently, hydrogen accounts only for about 1% of world energy consumption (industrial purposes count for most of that) and is produced mostly from natural gas, oil, or coal. Less than 5% is extracted through electrolysis—the process by which water is split into hydrogen and oxygen by an electric current.
Given the size of the oceans, water is the most abundant, and most obvious, future source of hydrogen. Yet with current technology, the amount of electricity required to extract the hydrogen makes the resource inefficient. Here lies the paradox: While we know how to mix hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity and steam (the process of a fuel cell), we can't yet efficiently do the process in reverse—use electricity to split water into H2 and O2. "Unfortunately, no one has been able yet to figure out a fuel cell that could work both ways," says Varenne.
Instead, the Michelin engineers teamed up with the innovative regional electric utility in Fribourg, Groupe E, to install 55 square meters of solar panels on their premises—the "refueling station" that Varenne had showed me. The energy generated powers an electrolyzer that splits enough water into oxygen and hydrogen to run the car for 20,000 km (12,500 miles) a year.
In other words, covering a portion of a house's roof with solar panels would be enough to power the average Westerner's annual driving needs (depending on how you measure them: Europeans drive some 9,000 miles a year; Americans about 13,000), while emitting only steam.
And consider that Fribourg is hardly the sunniest place in Switzerland.
Groupe E is heavily invested in the development of higher-efficiency, smaller-size electrolyzers. The one used for the Hy-Light is the size of a small garage: "We're working on getting it down to the size of a washing machine," says Groupe E CEO Philippe Virdis. The metaphor isn't random: Virdis' vision is that over time "every Swiss will be able to produce the energy for his own home and car," through a combination of solar panels, a home electrolyzer, and a fuel cell. "It's a totally different approach than the current centralized, hierarchical energy production and distribution system: a decentralized, renewable, sustainable one."
It's also a totally disruptive approach. It will take a moment before the Hy-Light and the electrolyzer-as-household-appliance reach marketability. Still, the Michelin engineers set off to reinvent the wheel and, with their partners, they're now showing that it's possible to rethink both the car and the whole energy-supply system.