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Hydrogen power for bikes and toy cars

Fuel cell company starts small with systems that make kid's play out of alt-fuel systems. Photos: Running on hydrogen

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
4 min read
A hydrogen-powered bike sounds like a Cub Scout project from the 23rd century, but there's a good chance such a vehicle will hit the roads later this year in Canada or China.

Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies is readying an electric bike that gets its energy from a hydrogen fuel cell rather than a rechargeable battery, according to Taras Wankewycz, co-founder and vice president of Horizon. The company is talking with government officials in both countries to get these bikes out in 2007, he added.

"About 10 million electric bikes in China get sold every year and the lead acid batteries get discarded all the time," Wankewycz said.

The company is also trying to prime interest for hydrogen-powered fishing boats, mini-cars, golf caddies and toys.

Rather than try to develop hydrogen cars, Horizon is attempting to keep the idea of hydrogen power alive by showing how fuel cells can power smaller items.

Horizon's H-racer, a hydrogen-powered remote-controlled car for hobbyists, for instance, comes with a solar panel that harvests electricity that gets utilized to split water to create hydrogen.

"The reason it works is that people can refill it," Wankewycz said. "We think big but we start small. We want to see the larger applications but we are realistic about when they are going to hit."

Running on hydrogen

Even hydrogen proponents admit it's somewhat easy to come up with reasons the hydrogen economy may never come to pass. Hydrogen can be expensive to make, and production can generate significant amounts of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Producing hydrogen cleanly with chemical reactions or solar power is possible, but these methods remain expensive for generating large volumes of gas. Hydrogen power also is not as efficient as simply using solar power to recharge batteries.

Hydrogen, however, does have this over batteries: it takes only a few minutes to refill a gas cylinder or a tank in a hydrogen car, according to, among others, U.C. Berkeley researcher Tim Lipman. A battery, particularly a large automotive battery for an electric car, can take hours to recharge. Batteries are also expensive and need to be replaced at some point, thereby creating toxic waste. (Hydrogen fuel cells and batteries essentially perform the same task--they generate electrons for an electric engine--but harvest and deliver those electrons in a different manner.)

Until some of these problems can be ironed out, Horizon is trying to zero in on scenarios that can skirt the difficulties. One application Horizon has hopes for is powerboats. Switzerland has banned gas engine boats in many of its lakes. "You can only sail or use a battery," he said. Horizon has created, and has been testing, a hydrogen-powered trolling motor in that country. It's silent and can pull a boat forward at a low speed, two things fishermen want.

Docks typically also sell propane and other gases, so getting hydrogen in the mix should be somewhat feasible.

In the commercial/industrial realm, Horizon has started to experiment with unmanned aerial vehicles, those silent drones armies and police agencies use for surveillance. The DLR Institute for Technical Thermodynamics in Germany built and has flown the Hyfish, a hydrogen-powered UAV.

Next, Horizon will work with DLR and others to create a hydrogen-powered UAV that can stay in the air for more than 15 hours. In all likelihood, he added, hydrogen UAVs when eventually put into production will not run on hydrogen alone. Instead, a hydrogen fuel cell would supplement and back up a battery-powered engine, he added.

Although prices will invariably decline over time, building fuel cells and hydrogen storage systems isn't cheap. The fuel cell bike, for instance, will likely cost around $1,000, and about $600 of that price will come from the cost of the power system. A typical electric bike in China with a lead acid battery costs about $200. Thus, at least initially, these bikes will have to be sold to companies that rent them out to people, sort of like rental cars.

While the price disparity makes it appear nearly impossible that hydrogen bikes could catch up to regular bikes, government regulations may help. Cities in China and India have already clamped down on two-stroke and diesel engines, and stiffer regulations on battery disposal aren't out of the question, Wankewycz said.

On the bikes, the hydrogen gets stored in a solid-state chamber, where the hydrogen gets embedded in metal. Solid-state storage weighs more than an aluminum (or carbon fiber) gas tank, but the potential for mishaps and fires evaporate.

If anything, consumers seem intrigued by hydrogen power, according to Wankewycz. Sales of the H-racer, which goes for $115, have been good in the first nine months of its release, he said, and it's now sold in 28 countries. A faster, upgraded version that will sell for $150 comes out soon, while the slower $85 Hydrocar hits in May.

Recently, Horizon also released a drop-in fuel cell for enthusiast remote-controlled cars. With the fuel cell, one of these remote-controlled cars can go up to 22 miles per hour.

"There is a lot of creativity out there," he said. "We get (potential) applications all the time."