A to B 38 Blog, October 2003, Fuel Cell Symposium

Fuel Cell Symposium, Cycle 2003
David Henshaw

One hesitates to take sides in the railway national/private ownership debate, but as an ordinary commuter one becomes increasingly suspicious of industry pronouncements on targets and achievements. Take, for example, the claim that 80% of trains run within five minutes of time – itself, a shocking indictment of the private network, but nevertheless pure fiction, as most commuters will agree.

Visiting a selection of London-based shows in September, the Mole keeps a personal record of rail performance between Bogworthy Junction and Paddington, a line hewn from Wessex shales by Great Men, but operated today by a loathsome crew of bus executives and anonymous business types.

During a typical week’s commuting, involving no adverse weather conditions, miscreant leaves or other hazards, one observes that a modest 60% of trains depart on time, but only half that number – ie 30% – arrive on time (or within five minutes of time) at the other end. Most were small delays of six to ten minutes, but two trains arrived disruptingly late – 15 and 30 minutes apiece. Excuses were many and varied, and mostly aimed at Network Rail, although some were a little odd, such as we’ve stopped to let another train pass. What train could be more important than the Bogworthy Flyer? The royal saloon, perhaps?

But we digress from the real matter in hand, for having arrived (some minutes behind the royal party, one assumes) one sets forth on the long and rather complicated trek eastwards to Excel, a conference centre located even further east than docklands, but convenient for the M25 and City Airport, apparently.

Several hours later, one arrives at the Fuel Cell Symposium, where groups of jolly-looking boffins are eagerly expounding to knots of nervous suits why liquid hydrogen is out this year, but compressed gas is in. And with another ten million they’ll be able to prove it…

Without delving too deeply into such unpleasant things as oxides and polymers, the Mole gathers that the hydrogen economy (or at least, the transport part of it) remains some way off, or as one helpful boffin put it: ‘as viable as a pixi’s fart’, which seemed rather apt.

…the boffins are adamant that compressed hydrogen is safe… they would say that wouldn’t they?

A to B magazine, Fuel Cell Symposium

Jörg Weigl’s Hydrogen-powered trike

The transport display proves suspiciously static, with only one vehicle on the move – an entertaining hydrogen-fuelled recumbent, produced by one Jörg Weigl of Germany. For fuel cell geeks, the Optima trike weighs 65kg and can be ridden for up to 550 miles at speeds of up to 40mph on a tank of compressed hydrogen. It also utilises a low temperature polymer-exchange-membrane fuel cell and lithium-polymer energy buffer, which is just about understandable, although the Mole was floored by the ‘four-quadrant-synchronous-engine-frequency-transformer’, choosing to nod wisely at this point.

Is it practical? Er, it cost E32,000 to build (Jörg will knock up another for E20,000 should anyone be interested), and it carries fuel at a pressure of more than 5,000psi.The boffins at the Symposium are adamant to a man and woman that compressed hydrogen is perfectly safe, with 10,000psi being the Next Big Thing, but they would say that, wouldn’t they?

robotThe real problem is that no-one has yet dreamed up a practical way of refuelling a vehicle of this kind, so filling stations are a bit thin on the ground. The general consensus is that robot actuation will be required, as the risks of (a) some clown blowing up the immediate neighbourhood or (b) inflating his jacket and floating off into the stratosphere, are not insignificant.

The city of Middlesbrough, which strangely enough has a ready made hydrogen ‘grid’, is considering installing a filling station, but that would involve travelling to Middlesbrough, a prospect too frightful to contemplate.

Fuel Cell Symposium, BOC/Sigen marathon car

BOC/Sigen Marathon Car

The fuelling problem was brought into focus by the BOC/SiGEN marathon car – ˜ticking over’ on the test track, but too cumbersome to steer around the circuit. Designed to compete in the annual Shell Eco- Marathon, the car should have finished amongst the leaders, but achieved ‘only’ 1,200 miles per gallon. It seems that fuel consumption is measured by weighing the fuel tank before and after a run – fine with conventional liquid fuels, but hard to accomplish with hydrogen at 5,000psi…The judges quite rightly ruled that the vented gas should be included.

…Ten years and millions of dollars to develop, and it’s a complete and utter load of old rubbish…

The only bicycle on display (safely static and de-fuelled) was the very same Aprilia Enjoy compressed hydrogen machine dismissed by Professor Pivot in A to B 27. This has a claimed range of only 47 miles, so would only be of use to those living in or around Middlesbrough, even if Aprilia had kept the Enjoy in production, which it has not. All things considered, one is increasingly optimistic about the future for pedal power.

This impression is reinforced by a visit to Stuff 2003, a show promoted by something called Stuff, a magazine stuffed largely with partially clad young ladies, and aimed at young men with more money than sense.

segwayFor 2003, Stuff invited alternative transport manufacturers to display their wares in a ‘Stuff the Congestion Charge’ zone. Thus, the bicycle world was represented by Brompton and Airnimal, two suitably techie folding machines, plus the single speed Bike-in-a- Bag; arguably less techie, but useful enough for the young man with neither money nor sense.

Otherwise, Stuff the Congestion Charge was clogged with electric scooters of all kinds, which, as good A to B readers should know, are not legal on roads or pavements in the UK. This technicality seems to have escaped the attractive young people busily flogging the machines to gullible passers by. When the Mole produces a copy of A to B 35, complete with damning legal judgement on the matter, the retailers go into a huddle and decide the scooters might be legal in some areas. Further discussion results in a grudging acceptance that the scooters could be legal, but only if registered, taxed and insured as mopeds. Quite why anyone would choose to travel to work on a machine with six-inch wheels and a three- mile range, when they could be riding a nippy Honda 50, is beyond the Mole, but it takes all sorts.

Superstar of Stuff the Congestion Charge was undoubtably the Segway, an example of which performed a number of demonstrations over the weekend. It’s hard to see quite what the purpose of this device is. Range is claimed to be ‘up to 15 miles’, but judging by the frequency with which the demo Segway sneaked off for a crafty recharge, that looks a bit optimistic.When your Segway conks out on the road, you’re supposed to lift it into a car trunk and carry it home. Oh yeah? This ‘portable’ machine weighs 38 – 43kg (83 – 95lb), according to spec…

Top speed is put at 12.5mph, which sounds reasonable enough, but it’s still somewhat slower than a 15mph electric bicycle, with half the range. So at £4,000, no less, what is it actually for?

In any event, the Mole understands that all 6,000 Segways are to be recalled after reports that a number of users – including Hero of Baghdad, Bush Junior – had fallen off when the battery went flat. Sad but true; when the battery coughs and dies this multi-million dollar gyroscopic machine falls over, tipping its human cargo into the gutter. Ten years and millions of dollars in development, and it’s still a complete and utter load of old rubbish. We’ll give it three months before they pull the plug.

It was with some relief that the Mole arrived at CYCLE 2003 on the lookout for proper bicycles with pedals. Now in its second year, the show remains something of a mixed bag, with spinning (ie, bicycling without a road, or indeed, a bicycle) appeared to get the upper hand over the real thing.

Electric bikes were absent, apart from the ludicrously dumpy little Bliss, described rather breathlessly as a high quality lightweight dual purpose ultimate leisure, folding electric bike. Whatever happened to the comma?


Trek F400

The folding bike sector was much more interesting. New to the market are Trek and Specialized, both cashing in on Congestion Charge mania (it’s surprising how much panic a £5 charge can generate). The Specialized is more or less a badge-engineered Dahon Roo, so unless badges mean a great deal to you, stick with Dahon and keep a couple of hundred quid in your pocket. On the other hand, Trek seems to have done some real evelopment work, producing a range of quite interesting designs, albeit on what might be described as a Dahon floorplan. The range runs from a decent Sram 3- speed at £470 to a sexy any-colour-you- like-as-long-as-it’s Starry Night black variant complete with Shimano Deore 9- speed derailleur, for a cool £750. All have the same love-it-or-hate-it vertically stretched alloy frame tube that looks as though it’s been sat on by an elephant.


Specialized Globe Mity

Birdy has introduced a new White model fitted with Shimano’s small-wheel-friendly 9-speed Caprio gear system, but thanks to exchange rate anomalies, it’s going to cost £1,050. Hmm. Less excitement at Brompton, which has launched three new colours – orange and two shades of blue, making no fewer than four blues in all. There’s also a new bag frame, which doesn’t sound very exciting, but produced from a complex array of alloy tubes and plastic mouldings, it’s noticeably lighter and altogether more Bromptonesque.

Surprise hit at the show was the Zero shaft-drive bike. Yes, shaft-drive adds a lot of complication, cost and friction to a conventional bike, but on a folder it neatly eliminates that oily troublesome chain. Claimed to weigh a reasonable 13kg (281/2lbs), the new alloy-framed Zero comes with Nexus 3-speed hub for £475 – a neat, low- maintenance folding bike, one suspects.

condor-20-inch tourer

Condor’s 20-inch wheel tiny-tourer

The best prototype folder on display was the Knightsbridge (see page 12), produced by the irrepressible Mike Burrows. A brief spin around Islington confirms the bike to be one of the nicest 20-inch machines around. The unusual frame is superb, and the bike performs better with a single well-chosen ratio than some multi-speed machines. A real delight that may yet see limited production in folding or rigid form.

The best product fixed firmly to the wall was Sturmey Archer’s new S80 Phoenix hub gear: 305% range, 8-gears, 1.45kg, and so on. A bicyclist’s wish-list, but as yet unavailable in the shops… One awaits developments with keen interest.

For children there was very little to see. KMX seemed busy with their recumbent trike, but star of the show was Condor’s new range of diminutive 20″, 24″ and 26″ wheel touring bikes. There are no plans for a 16″ version, but there seemed to be plenty of interest, despite a price in the £500 region.

A miniature tourer should please the Cyclists Touring Club technical officer, Chris Juden, who’s rumbled on about the lack of such things for decades. Chris, it seems, has finally given up hope of guards vans returning to the Portsmouth line and decided to buy a car instead. He won’t be alone amongst Britain’s car-free journalistic community: The Mole understands that Folding Society supremo Mike Hessey has purchased a Smart car, and having experienced the state of Central Trains rolling stock, one has a certain sympathy. Which brings us back to the railways. British Rail pork pie anyone?