ENV Fuel Cell Motorbike: Tip of the Non-ICE Berg
By Bill Moore
In the literature that Intelligent Energy sent me just after the official unveiling of the ENV fuel cell motorbike in London last month, there is a series of photographs of the CORE fuel cell stack being removed from the bike. I didn't appreciate the significance of those images until I spoke with company CEO Harry Bradbury.
It turns out that those photos are the story and not the ENV. As tantalizing and exciting as those two prototype motorbikes may be, they are just the tip of the non-ICE (internal combustion engine) berg.
"Our job is to be at the design end of the use of the technology," Bradbury told me, explaining that their fuel cell technology has been "in gestation" for some fifteen years. He founded Intelligent Energy just three years ago.
"Clearly what we wish to do in both vehicles and in other dimensions is to produce pre-production prototypes to stimulate others to come forward to manufacture and distribute".
"The concept, really, behind the ENV" -- pronounced like envy -- "bike, which as you know stands for Emissions Neutral Vehicle, is to provide something [that is] a light-weight bike, very visible, very new, very fresh to consumers to stimulate interest in order to move it forward; and literally as a vehicle for the use of fuel cells".
This isn't the story being told in the media where headlines complained that the ENV was "too quiet". Intelligent Energy isn't about building motorbikes, its about pioneering and perfecting a wide range of PEM fuel cell technologies from the 1kWh unit -- called the "Core" -- that powers the ENV to a 75 kWh unit that is the size, Bradbury reported, of a desktop printer.
So if his company is really about building compact, high energy density fuel cells, then why the ENV?
He explained that his company sees a market for a 125cc-comparable motorbike in the recreational market in North America, and as a quiet, pollution-free alternative to the millions of motorscooters and motorbikes that choke the noisy, congested streets of Asian-Pacific cities.
"The challenge for us was how do we show the world, on the one hand, that fuel cells are ready to be in vehicles, and ready to be out there for production. But secondly, perhaps, unlike some of the other companies that are working in fuel cell development, we know that we've got one of the most compact fuel cell technologies in the world, even including the automotive companies; and this is really an expression of that compactness. If we can do it in something as relatively small as a light motorbike, then of course we can do it in larger bikes, of course we can do it in larger... four-wheeled vehicles. In fact, you maybe interested to know... that even by now we've produced a light aircraft with our partner's Boeing". [Editor's note: We will do a separate interview on this project later this summer].
The 80 kg ENV was designed to be used in both urban and off-road environments, sufficient clearance for use as a silent trailbike -- hunters and outdoor enthusiasts take note. Bradbury likened it to a cross between a motocross-type bike and an aggressive-looking urban street motorbike.
ENV's CORE combines the fuel cell stack, and hydrogen storage, enabling it to run as a stand-alone, portable generator. Unique to CORE is its use of stamped metal MEAs (membrane electrode assemblies) instead of graphite.
The real magic of the ENV, though, isn't its high-style design, stealth-like operation or its neutral emissions. The magic is the ability to unplug the CORE, which consists of the fuel cell stack and hydrogen tank, and use it for other purposes. Bradbury described a scenario where a rider could drive out into a country, remove the CORE, plug it into presumably an electric motorboat, cross a lake to an island and use the fuel cell to power the cabin. Given that the 1kWr CORE has sufficient fuel for about four hours operation, you would obviously need to replenish the hydrogen and even here Intelligent Energy is working on a compact hydrogen reformer that could take a liquid fuel and make H2, but more on that later.
This clever portability is, in Bradbury's words, "a very serious purpose, because we do imagine that as time progresses that there needs to be a multiplicity of use of fuel cell power delivery".
"This is really an expression of the degree of freedom this kind of power delivery gives you, and that obviously is reflected in the design of the bike".
Bradbury told me that the ENV is not meant to be a cross-country cruiser. Instead, its been designed largely for the urban environment and so has a top speed of 50 mph (81kph). This keeps it within the legal speed limits of most towns and cities, and is more than fast enough for use off-road.
"It feels when you ride it to be more like a cycle than a motorbike in the smooth nature of the vehicles motion, because its a bit like skiing on wheels, I characterize it as. And of course, 50 mph on something that's equivalent to a bicycle feels very fast. It's not the fastest thing on two wheels. It's not intended to be. It does naught (zero) to fifty in about 12 seconds, but remember, it doesn't have any gears. It does have the ability to free-wheel. So, it has a number of unusual characteristics, which means that it's very easy to use. It just has a simply throttle; and remember the benefit of a fuel cell is that it delivers power instantly. You get a 100 percent torque at zero revs".
While the two prototypes don't presently have regenerative breaking capabilities, Bradbury assure me that it could be implemented in a number of different ways.
Another novel aspect of the ENV is the fact that even with the CORE removed the bike can still be driven on its 15 Amp hours worth of lead-acid batteries (48 volts). Because the bike is a hybrid, the fuel cell stack performs two functions. It recharges the batteries and provides cruising power.
While Intelligent Energy engineered the CORE, the actual design of the bike and its portable fuel cell was tasked to one of Britain's top industrial design house, Seymourpowell.
I asked Bradbury about a comment that Richard Seymour, the co-founder of Seymourpowell, made in discussing his firms role in designing the project. He said, "With all the depressing news about climate change and geo-political unrest, many people look into the future with a sense of dread, or at best ambivalence. Put simply, the future is painted by much of the media as a dark, dysfunctional place..."
"I think that what Richard's getting to there is that it's very easy to become depressed about the fact that this simply has to continue because this is the way of the world. It isn't the way of the world; and fuel cells give you a much more optimistic outlook if you do as we are already doing, in fact, in South Africa; make use of the same kind of technology that's within the ENV bike, but detach it, so to speak, and use it in rural electrification settings. Right now, we are presently powering remote clinics, hospitals, schools... in parts of South Africa.
"If you can actually generate electricity at the point at which you consume it, because you have access to technologies of the kind we have that can generate the hydrogen, as well as use the hydrogen in the fuel cells, then of course, it cuts out all the big infrastructure that you would ordinarily expect to have. And it means that people who currently don't have electricity, couldn't afford the entry price to have electricity, can in fact do that.
"We see that ENV bike as an expression of that independence". Bradbury pointed to the revolution in telecommunications industry brought about by the introduction of the cellular telephone technology which simply bypassed the need for building a conventional telephone system in many parts of the developed and developing world.
He sees the adaptation of fuel cell technology in much the same vein, as does Richard Seymour, who went on to say, "It's our job to face the future optimistically and projects like this pint the way. Instead of being a 'worthy compromise', the ENV is a thrilling, handsome, ecologically-friendly slice of 'Optimistic Futurism'."
Intelligent Energy's Mission Statement
"We think we haresponsibilityblity, being one of the few groups in the world that has developed fuel cell technology to this state of maturity. Just to re-echo that, we believe that even by comparison to great companies like General Motors and Toyota, we have this technology -- frankly, in our opinion -- at a more mature stage at this present time then they presently have. But even if you take the collective of all groups that have that degree of experience, there aren't that many, on a global basis; and therefore, we feel a great responsibility to insure that the technology goes out for a multiplicity of uses".
Bradbury acknowledged that his company's vision is much broader than just building small motor bikes. He sees Intelligent Energy's fuel cells being used in a wide range of applications from powering vehicle large and small, to distributed generation where an electricity infrastructure simply doesn't exist, which comprises a large percentage of the world.
"Our mission is to work hand in hand with large, blue chip manufacturing companies to enable them as quickly as possible, and to license them our technology, in order to have them do what they do best; and that is take these products and distribute them in the market. And our job is to be, if you like, the technology enabler, but to come up with some creative ideas about how products of the future could evolve. I mean, its called Intelligent Energy, hopefully because we're providing degrees of intelligence..."
The company also has operations in Los Angeles and Albuquerque, New Mexico, "where core teams have been working for many years on technologies that actually create or store hydrogen", Bradbury said. "That means we have a full spectrum from a multiplicity of different kinds of fuels, now and fuels of the future; all the way through to the production of power".
How Quiet Is 'Too Quiet'?
One of the more amusing aspects of the ENV story were the headlines that proclain spitespite of all its many virtues, the bike is "too quiet." I asked Bradbury for his reaction to this statement.
He replied that the biggest attribute of the bike is that it produces no pollution. But since it is a solid state device, it also has no moving parts and because of this is, for all intents and purposes, silent.
"The bike, itself, has some noise when it's running on the road, because of tire noise and so on, but at a very low, ambient level.
"We were asked, of course, when we first launched this about the unusual nature of developing a near-silent motorbike". He noted that in most urban settings, motorist pay little attention to motorcycles or motorbikes, regardless of how much noise they make.
"The issue, of course, is the interaction between a biker and pedestrians. Nowadays, all of us are used to inner cities where bicycles travel around with bells or other ways of attracting attention, if they need to. In this particular case, we think this comes down to a freedom of choice. Clearly, if you want to have a large noisy, motorbike -- and we love large, noisy motorbikes -- there are lots of contexts in which you might want that, and you obviously need the choice to be ability to choose that. But in many other context, particularly if you're in a non-urban setting, or particularly in places where you're actually trying to give a break to the pedestrian in terms of the noise levels we've all become used to, where a quieter bike, at least, or even a silent bike is going to be important.
"Now all of us are, of course, safety conscious and we want to do what we can to insure that there is a large uptake of bikes of this sort, because, fundamentally, they help to reduce pollution. But they also help to reduce noise pollution; and as you probably know, there are many studies, including those of the Department of Transport[ation] in the States that show that you don't just have to have audio cues, you need visual cues, as well.
"Of course, all of us nowadays have gotten used to listening for... and you don't have to listen too hard... for larger bikes in a city context. But I am sure that were we to have larger uptakes of bikes of this sort we'd all be much better off in becoming acclimatizedtized to much quieter vehicles... This, of course will be the case when the big auto companies eventually present four wheel vehicles that use... the same technology in an urban kind of context".
One of two prototype ENVs with its CORE fuel cell stack removed.
Prototype to Production?
Given the worldwide acclaim given the ENV, it would seem obvious that some manufacturer is going to wannegotiateitate for the rights to build the bike, but here Bradbury was naturally coy in saying who or even if they are talking to potential licensees.
"We're not at a point where we're willing to give up the names of the counter parties we're speaking with. As you can imagine, we've had a lot of attention from all the way across the world since we first launched this ENV bike and that's helped to to refocus where it is we believe it will be best to concentrate.
I think one of the things that's incumbent on us is to make sure that we're well focused in how to bring this to the market in an effective way. So, we are seeking to identify the main points of interest in terms of counter parties. It's going to be a little while before we're actually willing to reveal that".
I also asked Intelligent Energy's CEO if he had a sense of what the bike will cost if and when it goes into production. He responded that he did and that individually hand-built they would run about $30,000US.
"We believe in low volume manufacture; and by low volume, I mean a few thousand units, perhaps up to ten thousand units (annually). Were it to be that kind of volume, and obviously, we expect it to be significantly greater than that, but by way of a rule of thumb, we believe that the retail price would be in the range of somewhere about $6,000 to about $9,500.
"In order words, I doesn't take much in terms of volume to put this in the same cost window as you might expect from a lesser contender by way of a small scooter, for example".
As exciting as the ENV fuel cell motorbikes are, perhaps what is more important about them, is the promising new direct they are taking us where the energy that powers our transportation is converging with the power that energizes our lives.