The Super-Small, Open-Source, Ultracapacitor-Using Hydrogen Car

By Eliza Strickland | June 16, 2009 6:07 pm

Riversimple Urban CarThe newest attempt at a viable hydrogen-powered car is a tiny two-seater that should have early adopters tootling around the United Kingdom next year, according its manufacturer, a startup company named Riversimple. While momentum has recently shifted away from hydrogen cars and back towards electric vehicles, company executives say their Riversimple Urban Car meets the challenges posed by hydrogen fuel cell technology. Its makers claim that by starting from scratch to build a small, efficient car they can make it commercially viable more quickly than the major auto manufacturers experimenting with adapting more conventional cars to hydrogen [New Scientist].

A prototype of the light-weight city car was unveiled today in London. Riversimple executives drove up in the vehicle, which has a top speed of 50 miles an hour and can travel about 200 miles before refueling with liquid hydrogen. The car is packed with novel approaches to car design, but company founder Hugo Spowers says it’s the business model that really sets Riversimple apart. Users willl lease the car for an estimated $315 per month, a price that includes the cost of hydrogen fuel and any repairs. The company asserts that in the leasing model, the vested interest for the manufacturer is in producing long-lasting, fuel-efficient, high-quality products [BBC News]. The company will first try a small pilot program in one (to be determined) city in England, where a gas supply company will partner with Riversimple to build fuel stations.

The Riversimple car will have a tiny (and therefore relatively cheap) hydrogen fuel cell–only about 6 kilowatts, as compared to the 100 kilowatt fuel cell that Honda’s FCX Clarity hydrogen car uses. The Riversimple car is driven by four electric motors – one in each wheel…. Coupling the motors directly to the wheels in this way makes it possible to recoup as much as 50 per cent of the energy that would be lost to friction using conventional brakes. The [car] doesn’t have a battery, but relies instead on a bank of ultracapacitors, which are able to take on and release energy much more rapidly, and provide most of the power to get the car moving [New Scientist].

In yet another innovation, most of the car’s engineering designs will be offered up to the world via the 40 Fires Foundation. By making their designs “open source,” Spowers says the designs can be adjusted for local markets, using locally sourced parts or materials. The agreement will be such that if the designs are improved by a local manufacturer, those improvements will be sent back, so that what the company refers to as its “network of manufacturers” can contribute to the overall development of the product line [BBC News]. If the company creates a few competitors in the process of giving away their ideas–well, competition is healthy, says Spowers.

Riversimple seems to be bucking the trend on green technology: In the United States, the Obama administration recently cut off federal funding for research on hydrogen vehicles, arguing that the technology wouldn’t be commercially viable for decades. But Spowers disputed the notion that widespread hydrogen technology was a long way off. “I agree the passion is swinging away from hydrogen, but the reason is people are sceptical of the near-term possibilities of hydrogen vehicles – people are still clear that hydrogen is the end-game.” The Riversimple urban car, he said, proved the technology was available now [The Guardian].

Related Content:
80beats: Hydrogen Car Goes Down Like the Hindenburg: DoE Kills the Program
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DISCOVER: Under the Hood of the First Real Fuel-Cell Car
DISCOVER: Future Tech test drives three hydrogen cars
DISCOVER: Lovin’ Hydrogen describes Amory Lovins’s vision of a hydrogen-powered future

Image: Riversimple

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology
  • Nick

    Still trying to chain us to a small specialized distribution network when we all already have electricity piped directly to our homes, and available in the form of solar and wind energy should we choose to implement direct energy farming to our houses.

    And… liquid hydrogen? LIQUID hydrogen?

    Liquid hydrogen requires cryogenic storage technology such as the special thermally insulated containers and requires special handling common to all cryogenic fuels. This is similar to, but more severe than liquid oxygen. Even with thermally insulated containers it is difficult to keep such a low temperature, and the hydrogen will gradually leak away (Typically it will evaporate at a rate of 1% per day[10]). It also shares many of the same safety issues as other forms of hydrogen, as well as being cold enough to liquefy atmospheric oxygen which can be an explosion hazard.”

    It sounds like they have a lot more problems to solve than just making a fuel efficient design (though they are correct in stating that most other auto companies are just giving us more of the same). Honda’s cheapest and most efficient hydromobile is, what, 400k to a million to make and they’re not letting purchases happen either, lease only currently.

    Their car does look pretty spiffy though, just the kinda stats I’d look for in an urban commuter. I just don’t want to be chained to gas/hydrogen stations forever. My next ride will be a plug-in hybrid (with 130+ mpg), bridging me over until battery technology finishes catching up (and hopefully will be able to be converted to full-electro when the time is right). Trying to build out a hydrogen infrastructure seems kinda senseless when you already have a well-functioning electricity grid with more and more people starting to go solar as the price drops.

  • Sundance

    Everything you said is spot-on, Nick ut there’s also the additional fact that liquid hydrogen has a much lower energy density than liquid hydrocarbons (about 7% as much energy per litre if I remember correctly). That fact alone should be enough to kill the concept of LH vehicles, in favour of plug-in hybrids. take all the energy-efficiency and weight-saving advancements for a vehicle like this, but power it with electricity and renewable hydrocarbons, not hydrogen.

  • Mark

    Why not avoid the need for a hydrogen infrastructure by using a reversible fuel cell that charges up through a standard electrical outlet? These systems already exist. Also storage of hydrogen can be done chemically as a hydride at much lower pressure.

  • wallace

    the electricity takes mostly coal to make. we need a viable nuclear energy source to replace all the coal burners…and then it will be feasible to run electric hybrids. i would like to see turbo diesel hybrids…maybe vw will make one soon. oh ya read the discovery magazine article online about nuke power these days..three mile island was over 30years ago some people should get a clue.

  • John Gates

    We need to support all technologies. The ultimate source of energy will be hydrogen fusion power if we can ever develop it. Until then we should be building hundreds of nuclear power plants like France has. Hydrogen powered vehicles are the ultimate if we can develop the technology. IF we can power the space shuttle with it, we should be able to fugure out how to power cars with it. I guess the Japanese will figure it out and American cars will be even less desirable. Obama is printing trillions of dollars and he’s cutting hydrogen research? That’s insanity.

  • YJ Draiman

    Use the sun to convert water into hydrogen.

  • hybrid vehicles

    I’ve just started a weblog, the knowledge you supply on this site has helped me tremendously. Appreciation for all of your time & work.


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