Ten years ago, Swiss top watch industrialist Nicolas Hayek -- boss of Swatch Group, which owns several brands including Omega, Calvin Klein and Swatch -- broke into the car market with the Smart car, a cool compact city car he co-developed with DaimlerChrysler. The car was cute, but it didn't match Hayek's design and cost expectations, and Swatch pulled out.
Now Hayek -- widely credited with re-making the Swiss watch industry into the world's leader after a deep crisis in the 1980s -- is back with a new (and so far secret) plan, which my colleague Alain Jeannet and myself reveal in this week's issue of L'Hebdo magazine (article in French here): he is teaming up with PSI, a division of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and with Groupe E, a Swiss regional utility, to develop an ultra-efficient and cheap fuel cell engine. A joint company will be incorporated in the coming weeks.
This is related to a recent column I wrote about a fuel cell prototype developed by PSI and tiremaker Michelin, which is circulating on Swiss roads propelled by hydrogen and oxygen and producing zero air pollution. The new alliance aims at bringing fuel cell technology to the next stage, and make it cheap enough so that it becomes affordable to everyone.
Contrary to the Smart, however, Hayek says that he won't try to develop a car: he and his partners will stick with developing the engine, and plan to sell it to car manufacturers -- the engine as an off-the-shelf component (Hayek is applying a watchmaking strategy here).
The weak spot of fuel cells is the provision of hydrogen. In nature, hydrogen exists in large quantities only combined with other elements (oxygen, for example -- that's water), and alot of energy is needed to separate it. Currently, most hydrogen is produced by burning oil, coal or natural gas: not a "green" approach. The Hayek alliance is working on perfecting an electrolyzer (which could be sold with the engine) capable of splitting water into H2 and O2 by using solar energy, captured through photovoltaic panels.
The contents of our article were confirmed by Hayek's spokesperson in a statement to the Swiss Press Agency. More information will be known probably in October when the three companies should hold a joint press conference.