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Motorbikes Ride High on Hydrogen

By Beth Carney The new, hydrogen-powered ENV prototype doesn't look like a typical motorbike or scooter. Sleeker and taller than a scooter, with thinner wheels and a noticeable lack of exhaust pipes, the ENV looks more like an ordinary bicycle that has been fitted out with a hefty, futuristic body.

But even more unusual than its appearance are its capabilities. The ENV is emission-free, quiet, has a top speed of 50 mph, and can travel up to 100 miles between refills. "We aren't thinking about this in terms of it being equivalent to anything, because, really, it isn't," says Harry Bradbury, CEO of Intelligent Energy, the London-based hydrogen technology company that made the ENV prototype with the London design firm Seymourpowell.

Like the broader auto industry, makers of motorcycles and scooters have been working to develop a hydrogen-powered ride that runs without producing polluting carbon emissions. Honda (HMC) and Piaggio-owned Aprilia are among the other companies that have developed such prototypes.

CELL DESIGN. So far, none of the other experimental models are close to being commercially produced. "We can make a scooter, but we're very far away from mass production," says Aprilia spokesman Claudio Pavanello, citing both the cost of building the hydrogen vehicle and the lack of fueling stations. But Intelligent Energy says its ENV bike, which is now being shown in Europe and will be brought to Los Angeles in May, could be on the road as soon as next year.

The bikes are all powered by fuel cells, in which hydrogen and oxygen are combined to produce electricity, with water as the only by-product. But Intelligent Energy officials contend that the ENV (for emissions neutral vehicle) bike is a step forward, since it has been designed from scratch around the fuel-cell technology. Weighing about 175 pounds, the motorbike is powered by batteries and a detachable fuel cell -- about the size of a small suitcase -- that, in theory, could be used as a transportable means of power.

More important, Bradbury says Intelligent Energy's fuel cell, which has been developed over the past 15 years by a team of scientists affiliated with Loughborough University in Leicestershire, Britain, is simpler and more compact than its competitors, which means it's less expensive to make. While hand-making the bike would cost ?15,000, or around $28,285, a production run of 10,000 would bring the retail price down to ?3,000, or about $5,660, Bradbury says.

UNDER WRAPS. That's still considerably more expensive than an ordinary low-speed scooter designed for urban commuting, such as the Vespa ET2, which goes up to 30 miles per hour and costs about $3,000 in the U.S. But it's within the range of more powerful Vespa models, which can run to $5,000.

Bradbury believes the price is low enough to attract buyers. "The whole engine you build from our fuel cell is significantly simpler and easier to manufacture and cheaper than anybody else's," says Bradbury.

Intelligent Energy's claims for the ENV are difficult to evaluate because most of the technical details are being kept under wraps for competitive reasons. "The company hasn't disclosed enough about its technology or its business plan to draw any conclusions one way or the other," says David Redstone, editor and publisher of The Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Investor newsletter, who is skeptical that the outfit's technology is distinctive. In general, though, experts in the fuel-cell industry say hydrogen-powered motorbikes may ultimately be easier to bring to the market than cars and trucks.

URBAN EXPLORER. The bikes need less power, for one. While a car needs 50 to 100 kilowatts, a light motorcycle, like the ENV bike, can depend on as little as one. Since fuel cells become more expensive the more powerful they are, a one-kilowatt version is relatively affordable, according to Frano Barbir, professor at the University of Connecticut's Global Fuel Cell Research Center. Further, because a motorbike's fuel cell is small, it can be air-cooled rather than water-cooled, which eliminates one of the difficulties of making large vehicles.

Consumer expectations are lower, too, Barbir says. Motorbikes made for driving around urban areas are often designed to be refilled every 60 miles or so, while cars are expected to be able to drive 300 miles without a refill. "The chance of a fuel cell being competitive for a motorcycle is higher than for a car," Barbir contends.

Moreover, a large potential market exists for relatively inexpensive, nonpolluting bikes. Intelligent Energy sees the immediate market for the ENV bike in environmentally conscious commuters or recreational motorcyclists who are drawn to the distinctive design. The long-term market for the bike would be in Asian cities such as Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Beijing, where people rely far more on motorbikes and where pollution is a serious problem.

HYDROGEN HIGHWAYS. Of course, a major drawback is the lack of infrastructure for supplying hydrogen. Although fueling stations are cropping up in some areas, the U.S. has no national hydrogen-supply system -- which may make manufacturers reluctant to risk producing the bikes. And although Intelligent Energy hasn't ruled out producing the bike itself, the business is looking for a partner to handle manufacturing.

Niche marketing is another possibility. Bradbury says the ENV bike could be launched in one of the areas committed to building hydrogen highways, such as California, where 16 hydrogen fueling stations have been built as part of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's pledge to create a "hydrogen-highway network" by 2010. Another alternative would be to try "micro-retailing" the bike in specific cities or regions where hydrogen is now produced as an industrial by-product.

To add to its U.S. beachhead, the company has agreed to be bought by Nasdaq-listed Californian apparel maker Dickie Walker Marine (DWMA) in a process known as a reverse merger, after which Intelligent Energy shareholders will own 95% of the new company. Such mergers are a way for a small concern to go public without incurring the cost of an initial public offering. The new entity will continue to focus on hydrogen technologies and shift its headquarters to Los Angeles, where it already has an office.

Whatever happens, Intelligent Energy doesn't plan to produce the ENV on a massive scale, as the key to its appeal is "the novelty of having an environmentally friendly and quiet vehicle," says Bradbury. An affordable emission-free motorcycle without tailpipes would be a novelty indeed. Carney is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in London

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