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Riversimple sounds out Oz for fuel cell car

Open to ideas: Riversimple founder Hugo Spowers behind the wheel of the UK company's 'open-source' hydrogen fuel-cell car.

UK ‘open-source’ hydrogen runabout on offer for Australian entrepreneurs

28 Jun 2010

THREE partners behind a British world-first ‘open-source’ hydrogen fuel-cell electric city car that can achieve claimed fuel consumption equivalent of less than 1.0 litre per 100km have been touring Australia to sound out interest among automotive suppliers and government agencies.

Riversimple – designer of the carbon-fibre-bodied Network Electric two-seat runabout in the UK – say it is open to approaches from potential local partners to make or distribute the vehicle which will be leased to customers – fuel included.

The company is not only encouraging open-source design of the car, but open-source manufacturing by entrepreneurs who wants to take it on.

In Melbourne last week as part of their mission to spread the Riversimple message, the partners included Sebastian Piech, a descendent of Porsche founder and designer of the Volkswagen Beetle, Dr Ferdinand Porsche.

Also in the party were Riversimple founder and team leader Hugo Spowers – a former motor racing engineer and descendant of Banjo Patterson’s sister – and Professor Steve Evans, professor of life cycle engineering at Cranfield University in the UK and one-time engineer of ejection seats.

Mr Spowers told GoAuto: “We are seeking international partners to enter joint ventures and pursue the Riversimple model in regions across the world, tailoring the vehicle and the service to local needs and conditions.”

Using a light carbon-fibre body and a small electric motor in each wheel and tipping the scales at just 350kg, the Riversimple Network Electric is set to be tested in a pilot program involving 30 cars in the UK city of Leicester from 2012 ahead of a planned production start up in the same city the following year.

112 center imageLeft: Riversimple Network Electric.

Work has already started on a larger four-seater version to follow two years later, in 2015.

The company hopes to have about 84,000 cars on UK roads by 2020.

Powered by electricity produced by a modest 6kW fuel cell running on hydrogen, the lightweight Riversimple car can allegedly cover 386km per litre of hydrogen, compared with 50-60km per litre by other, heavier hydrogen fuel-cell prototype cars. Adjusted for energy equivalence, this is 0.95L/100km.

The electricity is augmented by regenerative braking via the electric motors in all four wheels, returning the power to a bank of ultra-capacitors that capture 50 per cent of the kinetic energy as the vehicle slows.

These ultracapacitors then can provide as much as 80 per cent of the energy required for subsequent acceleration. This allows the Network Electric to get by with a fuel cell only one fifth the size of those in other hydrogen fuel-cell prototype vehicles.

While a fuel cell is considered the best way to generate electricity, Mr Spowers said the power could just as easily come from a battery or even a diesel-generator set, if that suited the producer. The design could cope with these variations.

He said the technology used in the car was all “off the shelf”, but the innovation was in the way it was brought together.

With only 350kg to propel, the electric motors can push the Network Electric to 48km/h in 5.5 seconds and on to a top speed of 80km/h.

The light weight of the vehicle helps Riversimple step around one of the major drawbacks borne by other hydrogen-powered designs: it does not need to carry a lot of fuel and, therefore, can use hydrogen in gaseous form.

This avoids the need to compress the gas to liquid form and then refrigerate it to minus 253 degrees celsius, all of which requires extra energy, expense and engineering effort.

The Network Electric has to carry only 1kg of hydrogen (sufficient for 400km) which, in turn, limits refueling to about five minutes. Taking on 7kg – typical for a traditional vehicle converted to fuel cell operation – would take more than half an hour.

The Riversimple demonstration vehicle was said to be developed for just 470,000 ($A815,000), compared with tens of millions of dollars spent by major manufacturers on prototypes.

Under the Riversimple model, drivers will lease the car for a monthly fee of around 200 ($A350) and a mileage charge of 15p (A26c). All fuel costs are included in the fees, with refueling provided by stations set up by Riversimple.

Mr Spowers said Riversimple was aiming to spread gradually across a market by establishing refueling stations one at a time.

Each station would service a population of, say, between 100,000 and 300,000 people, and would need around 50 cars in the area to be viable.

“The Network Electric is for use as a local car and we envisage that, although they have a range of 380 kilometres, that they will remain ‘tethered’ to an area within a radius of around 25 miles (40 kilometres) from the refueling station.

“You can, therefore, avoid the chicken and egg circular argument about who is going to build the cars until the hydrogen stations are installed and who is going to install hydrogen stations until the cars are built.

“That circularity is broken by this approach, because each step is a commercially viable one.”

Contrary to common industry practice, the cars would be produced by a network of small factories, each viable at a production rate of around 5000 units a year. Break even was envisaged at 3000 units.

Each Riversimple plant would make the body panels and other parts on site, but Mr Spowers said items that responded well to mass production, such as electric motors, could end up being shipped from a central factory.

The company does not plan to be the only maker of the Network Electric, and has made its designs available to anyone who wants to make them. It would also welcome modifications the design if the company which proposed them funded the development.

A crucial part of the lease agreement is that Riversimple will undertake to update each car already on the road whenever improved economy can be achieved.

“Can you imagine the car-makers installing a more efficient petrol engine in a car they sold three years ago?” Mr Spowers said. “Of course not but, because we are paying for the fuel, it is our interests to make the cars on the road as efficient as possible.”

The Riversimple cars will be engineered to have a life of up to 25 years, although Mr Spowers believes 15 years is probably closer to the average.

When a lease deal expires, the car will be refurbished at the factory and then leased again.

Mr Spowers said the leasing idea would be extended to suppliers as well.

Thus, Riversimple would lease an electric motor from the supplier, install it in a car and then lease the car.

Mr Spowers said local parts makers had taken a keen interest in the Riversimple concept.

“They service a small industry and they are very flexible. They can change parts or volumes very quickly compared with the big producers overseas.”

Mr Piech said Australia was in an ideal position to take up the Riversimple opportunity, in one form or another.

“We are in Australia because can’t have this conversation in Germany,” he said.

“They are talking about pilot trials in Berlin and Hamburg, trialing fuel-cell-powered A Class Mercedes. They cost about $1m each and I don’t think anyone will buy one until they can drive them all over the country.

“If you build a car you can drive on motorways, you have got to be able to fuel it on motorways, and that needs expensive infrastructure. It doesn’t make sense to buy a motorway-capable car to drive around Berlin.”

Mr Piech said the implication of the trials was that they were a stepping stone towards a commercial market for hydrogen-powered cars.

“I don’t think it is.”

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