Words: Jon Lewis Photos: Supplied
|“Get down to London and test that damn bike!”. Editor ‘arris gives Mr. Lewis his first assignment.|
So here I am, CMG’s latest investment, kicking my heels in not-so-sunny Englandshire, awaiting the final nod of approval of the Canadian government to allow me into the country to work for CMG, when a call from his editorship lands me with my first assignment.
“Jon, while you’re still in Blighty, why don’t I get yourself down to London to test ride something called an ENV bike? It’s a fully working fuel-cell powered prototype that has had an enormous amount of post-graduate cleverness lavished upon it by a bunch of boffins from Loughborough University. It’ll be an hour of fun riding it round a go-kart track.”
Then he paused …
“Just don’t crash it.”
Marvelous. Superb. I was so looking forward to it.
A WORLD FIRST?
Intelligent Energy – the makers of the ENV (Emissions Neutral Vehicle) – claim that it is the first purpose-built fuel-cell motorbike. I wouldn’t like to dispute this, as I believe most of the major manufacturer’s efforts to date (except for Honda) have so far involved removing the internal combustion engine from a conventional scooter and wedging in a third party fuel cell, electric motor and batteries.
Basically, the fuel cell – known as the “Core” – is a solid-state (no moving parts) 1kW electrical generator. It uses hydrogen as its fuel, which reacts with oxygen (taken from the air) inside the plates of the core, producing water, heat and electricity.
Electrical power is supplied on demand (the amount of which is controlled by the throttle), and fed directly to the bike’s drive-train. To enable more spirited acceleration, the cell is used in conjunction with an on-board battery pack, to provide up to 6kW of power, with the batteries getting charged by the fuel-cell during low demand times.
This results in a claimed top speed of 80 Km/h, reached in steady 12.1 seconds from stand still. As for range, the makers claim that with a full tank, the ENV can be used continually for up to four hours, or 160 km at a steady 50 km/h, before requiring topping-up.
Topping up? Yes, therein lays the problem, but more on that later.
SUM OF THE PARTS
|Aircraft grade aluminium castings include trick bits.|
First impressions of the bike are favourable. It is in reality a showcase of visually attractive, state-of-art packaging design. A ‘design statement’, if you will, and has a kind of Tron look about it (remember that eighties sci-fi film of miniaturized blokes on bikes racing around inside a computer?), with a shortened tail and elongated nose cone surrounding the yokes and steering head.
The frame, swingarm, footrests and centrestand are castings in aircraft grade aluminium, which all contribute to the well-engineered feel of the bike. The majority of the braking, suspension and steering components were purloined from the fast and frantic world of downhill-mountain biking.
Adopting this technology for these concept bikes accessed an abundance of already well-developed equipment, allowing the use of such delightful features as miniaturized 6-piston brake calipers, upside down long-travel forks and an adjustable rear coil and damper unit inset into the swingarm (complete with rising rate linkage). Final drive to the rear wheel is by toothed-belt.
All very trick and all very nice.
|ENV with fuel-cell removed.|
Lighting and registration plate requirements were not addressed on the prototypes and as such the controls were limited to throttle (where you would expect it), front brake (ditto) and rear brake on the left hand handlebar lever (where expected on a mountain bike or scooter).
To describe the Core as easily accessed is the understatement of the year. The entire cell, fuel tank and instrumentation are all packaged in what can most easily be described as a briefcase-sized box. The instrumentation cluster is incorporated into the upper surface of the Core itself, giving start/stop buttons, fuel level, speed and current draw – albeit not in the field of rider view.
The entire fuel cell can be removed in around 10 seconds, as the only electrical connection is made via a single multicore plug positioned at the end of a docking station. Even I could do it. Imagine that the next time you’re three hours into a ZX-6 shim check.
WHAT’S IT LIKE THEN JON?
|Black version has knobbier tires.|
Anyways, enough of the nuts and bolts of the bike, what’s it like to ride?
There are two prototype variants – a ‘supergloss black’ with knobby tires, and an ‘iridescent white’ version with less-aggressive, treaded tires. The black ‘dirt version’ is the more aggressive looking of the two – it looks particularly well suited for off-road excursions … although sadly, knobbies on a greasy go-kart track proved not the best of bedfellows.
The seating height and position gives feet-flat-on-the-floor stability with a reasonably long stretch over the tank (?) to the fairly narrow, slightly raised bars.
Holding down the start button (located in front of your crown jewels, on top of the core) gives a brief burst of electrical fan, illuminates the display lights, and with a twist of the throttle you’re off … silently. Or as close to silent as you are ever going to get at 80 Km/h. There are no gears, so it’s a simple twist & go, yank & stop.
|Oh yes Mr. Lewis, it’s sooo you. Is it possible to look cool on an ENV?|
Throttle graduation is linear and consistent, without peaks or troughs and although unable to lift the front wheel on the throttle alone, acceleration can be described as reasonably swift. From my reckoning, it has about the same performance as a 100cc two-stroke scooter, which is fast enough to be entertaining in an urban commute scenario but would struggle with anything faster.
Keen though I was to keep the good name of CMG untarnished by tawdry bike launch crashing, as the session wore on, I eventually got a little braver with the acceleration and braking tests.
The brakes themselves were both progressive and powerful, as you would expect from such a high spec system, with plenty of feel at the lever letting you know what was going on below. Although under heavy braking, there was a certain amount of vibration and instability in the front forks and steering, this occurred on both bikes under similar conditions, thus eliminating any differences due to tire fitment.
|Does this bike make my arse look big? ENV designers follow the Buell school of seat design.|
I think the additional weight of the Core (a significant contributor to the bike’s total mass of 80Kg) may have contributed it was transferred under braking – further exacerbated by the complete absence of engine braking when the throttle is shut off, in a similar fashion as a 2-stroke motor.
The cornering – once the knobbies had settled themselves – felt secure and stable, particularly considering the conditions prevailing that day. Any bumps and dips in the road surface were easily dealt with by the super high-quality suspension system.
Overall though, the riding experience was enjoyable and demonstrated a competently engineered integration of this unusual power plant. I think it would be well suited to a town/city environment, where distances can be kept within the bike’s range, top speed is not an issue and its zero emissions keep us al breathing clearly just that little bit longer.
“FILL HER UP WITH PREMIUM PLEASE”
Okay, if we focus too much on the complete package, then I fear we’ll miss the real point of this machine – the fuel-cell. I have already stated that the bike itself is a successful packaging exercise. It is (there, I said it again), however, the aspect of the bike that concerns me the most is the availability of its fuel (or lack thereof).
|It’s all very funky, but will it ever make it onto the public roads?|
Hydrogen, as you would imagine, is already a commercially available and industrially produced gas. Ironically, it’s currently produced from non-renewable fossil fuels, and although the process is still more efficient than burning gasoline in an internal combustion engine, it’s not solving any dwindling oil-supply issues.
Alternative production methods – and there are several – centre around renewable sources, such as sugar cane bio-ethanol and sewage (yep, your crap can get you up to 80 km/h). Work is continuing apace with the development of these omni fuel converters, but until such time as their development is close enough to completion for the voting public to see the future for this fuel, I fear it will not receive the support it so desperately needs to be universally adopted.
If we ignore the issues surrounding the production of hydrogen, the supply and distribution of hydrogen (as per gasoline and diesel) is not and has no immediate likelihood of becoming a reality – at least not in the present global political climate. And herein lies its largest problem – whilst hydrogen may be the best, cleanest and most sustainable of fuels, its adoption will be severely limited until it is made as readily available as gasoline or diesel.
A GIANT LEAP FOR MANKIND?
|The fuel-cell can be removed in as little as 10 seconds.|
Intelligent Energy has produced this vehicle to show what can be achieved with a fuel-cell in a two-wheel package. This is only a small part of the story however – the big picture is that the cell can be used wherever you need to produce power and/or heat.
So, for example, on the journey to the cottage, the cell will be in your bike. When you get there, it can be taken out of the bike and used to power the cottage, and then the next day you could slap it in the boat. It’s not a bad idea, so long as you can find a way to top it up in between!
Aside from its 55% efficient energy conversion rate, the cell also has only one moving part (the fan) and is expected to be able to operate in a motorcycle for 50,000 miles without need for servicing.
It should be noted that there is currently no intention to commercialize this particular design of bike, which would likely prove too expensive to get established in the market place. Although state of art, its chassis and running gear are somewhat over-engineered for what is basically a funky scooter.
As an indication, the production bike retail cost was put at approximately £3,500 (about C$8500). This is likely too much for the average Canadian, but maybe more suited to the affluent southern Californian tastes, aided by strict emissions laws, and an affluent population.
|Super-fancy parts don’t help to keep costs down.|
As far as motorcycles go, we all know that there are significant advantages to their use over and above cars. Widespread single occupancy in cars, large gasoline engines, traffic jams and highway wear & tear, are all battles that motorcycles win, but unless the availability and provision of alternative fuels is addressed for automobiles, it will simply be impossible for motorcycles alone to adopt the alternative fuels.
My conclusion is twofold, as addressing purely the motorcycle is missing the point.
Firstly, as an exercise in integrating fuel-cell technology into a motorcycle platform, Intelligent Energy has succeeded – producing an entertaining and innovative machine that works well in a limited environment.
Secondly, unless governments in general commit to a program of investment into researching and actual implementation of alternative “green” fuels, then vehicles like the ENV will be doomed to being just exercises in what could be done, and not the first step towards getting viable zero-emission vehicles on the roads.
For more information on the ENV bike and fuel cell technology in particular, visit www.intelligent-energy.com
|Err, one fuel cell?|
|Fuel cell again?|
Avg. Fuel Cons
|One cell per 180 Km|
|180 Km (claimed)|
|One speed, belt drive|
|Big and skinny|
|Big and skinny|
|Single disc with six-piston caliper|
|Single disc with six-piston caliper|
|Bit tall for Jon|
|80 Kg (176 lbs) (claimed)|