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A motorcycle ride through Bangkok is a nightmare of sound and smoke and speed. In view at any moment are innumerable other belching, squealing two-wheeled vehicles. Similar scents and sounds haunt the streets of Beijing, Berlin, Chicago, Los Angeles, and many other cities the world over.
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Now, an all-British collaboration between fuel-cell pioneers Intelligent Energy and design stars Seymourpowell has produced a working prototype that promises a clean, quiet future. Their ENV bike (for "emissions neutral vehicle" and pronounced "envy") is the world's first motorcycle built around a hydrogen fuel cell. It is, to date, the simplest and most innovative articulation of that technology's potential.
Indeed, the ENV is fast becoming one of hydrogen's most attractive and compelling ambassadors, even stealing the spotlight from major auto manufacturers' prototypes. Since its unveiling last spring, the bike has toured the globe, showcasing a compact and practical working hydrogen fuel cell.
Intelligent Energy has been working on commercializing fuel cells for more than a decade and a half. Andy Eggleston, former vice-president for marketing at Ford (F) Europe, was tapped to create a production-ready vehicle based on the company's technology. It had to work, make the case for hydrogen fuel cells simply and effectively, and look, well, irresistible. "The idea was to get a visually striking, technology demonstrator, to show how ready this technology is," says Eggleston.
Seymourpowell, which has produced automotive and motorcycle concepts and production-ready vehicles for BMW, Yamaha, and Jaguar, was commissioned to develop a prototype. Designers and engineers grappled with striking a balance between dual purposes: celebrating hydrogen fuel cells as a solution to worsening pollution problems and stirring desire in consumers.
This resulted in a vehicle that is obviously a bike, but one unlike any other that has come before. At 176 pounds, it sits in the band between a heavy-duty mountain bike and a lightweight two-stroke motorcycle. The ENV matches conventionally powered competitors. It can go from a standing start to 30 mph in 7.3 seconds and reaches a top speed of 50 mph. It has a range of 160 miles before refueling. Impressive stats from a bike with zero emissions, except H2O.
Push the ENV's start button and the power source emits a breathy exhale as surplus air exits and enters its chambers and the fuel cell begins producing energy. Missing are the pitching whine and rattling backfire of many modern bikes. Instead, the ENV gives off a low hum. Its body design manages to recast conventional motorbike lines -- the high wheel-well arches and forward-leaning posture -- in ultramodern materials.
ENV's designers were granted unusual freedom. "Normally, the engine is the given, you draw the bike around it," Talbot says. "But we had the opportunity to distribute power across the entire entity. There are no radiators, there's no big lump of metal in the way."
The most unexpected aspect of its design is that the power source is portable -- you can take if off the bike. Called the Core, it is in essence a 1-kilowatt fuel cell the size of a small suitcase. And it can provide power to other devices, at home or in the wild.
The bike's body has an organic look and feel, unlike bikes made by Harley-Davidson (HOG) or Honda (HMC), which proudly display their inner gnarliness with exposed frames, swing arms, chains, metal bolts, and welding. "We want the body to look like it was grown," says Talbot.
Though the ENV is still a high-concept prototype, there's no technical reason why it can't be built today. Getting the cost right is the key. Given its simplicity and versatility, the ENV could do for hydrogen technology what the Prius (TM) did for gas-electric hybrids.
By Matt Vella