Zero-emissions motoring — the holy grail of automotive engineering — has a new and unlikely ally in a manufacturer more commonly associated with the throaty roar of a combustion engine, the thrill of the open road and a production process that harks back to the golden era of British sports car manufacture.
At the current Geneva motor show, the UK’s Morgan Motor Company helped shatter its reputation as an old-fashioned maker of old-fashioned vehicles when it launched the LifeCar: a fuel-cell-powered concept car that does 0-60mph in seven seconds, has an estimated range of 200 miles (322km) weighs just 700kg and emits nothing more offensive than a few drops of water.
In a package claimed to be three times more energy-efficient than any other vehicle of its type, the car uses a fuel cell to power four separate electric wheel-motors. The fuel cell is backed up by a series of ultracapacitors that are charged by a regenerative braking system and release their energy when the car is accelerating. This enables the use of a much smaller fuel cell than is traditionally regarded as necessary.
Based on the Morgan Aero Eight, the vehicle is the result of a £1.9m, 30-month project funded jointly by the government and a consortium that includes Morgan, Qinetiq, and industrial gas specialist BOC Linde.
While many visitors might have been surprised to see the company championing fuel cells Matthew Parkin, marketing director, said LifeCar is not the radical departure some have suggested. ‘We have a bit of an issue in terms of how we are perceived,’ he told The Engineer. ‘People think we’re old-fashioned, bumbling and very traditional and yet we make an Aero Eight — the first all-aluminium car in the world, with the most sophisticated ABS system you can get. There’s a lot of technology in our cars that we’re not really recognised for.’
LifeCar dovetails neatly with this philosophy. And, with the other consortium members, Morgan is using lessons learned during the project elsewhere in the business. ‘It drives forward the knowledge in our design and development department,’ said managing director Charles Morgan. ‘It means that we’re collaborating with some interesting new partners outside of the conventional motor industry. It forces us, for example, to think how we can make the car even lighter than it is at the moment.’
Though the project is a collaborative effort involving multiple partners it is the brainchild of one person — Hugo Spowers, a motorsport engineer with a passion for zero-emissions vehicles.
According to Spowers, LifeCar represents a fundamental rethink of how a fuel-cell car is developed. ‘The aim was to demonstrate that if you design a car around a fuel cell then you will end up with a very different solution than if you try fitting a fuel cell into a car designed for a petrol engine.’
He added: ‘People don’t popularly perceive just how optimised current automotive technology is around the characteristics of combustion engines.’ He suggested that the cost and power density issues that have held up fuel-cell car development are a result of the industry’s strategy of putting fuel cells in cars designed for something else.
Spowers believes the LifeCar project has made a huge stride forward, largely by turning this strategy on its head. ‘If you design a car for a fuel cell you can have a car with just as good performance but a quarter of the power, and if you have a quarter of the power you need a quarter of the power density.’ The result, he said, is a vehicle that boasts three times the energy efficiency of any other contemporary fuel cell prototype.
The car’s low-energy fuel cell, a proton exchange membrane system developed by Qinetiq, is one of the keys to this improved efficiency.
‘Rather than removing a huge internal combustion engine and replacing it with an equivalent power fuel cell, the whole angle here was, can we use a much smaller prime mover?’ said Ian Whiting, Qinetiq business development manager. Instead of using a 100-150kW fuel cell, the defence technology firm has developed a much lower power modular fuel cell based on four integrated 6kW cells.
LifeCar can make do with this less powerful fuel cell because of a series of ultracapacitors, which provide the bursts of power required for quick acceleration. These high energy-density capacitors, which can be rapidly charged and discharged, provide about 80 per cent of the power required during acceleration.
Another reason the vehicle can run on such a small fuel cell is the highly efficient wheel motors, developed specially for LifeCar by Oxford University’s Dr Malcolm McCulloch.
The devices, as well as being about 90 per cent efficient across their operating range and more than 10kg lighter than existing wheel motors, also harvest 50 per cent of the energy generated during breaking. This represents a huge improvement over existing regenerative breaking systems that tend only to recover about 10 per cent.
Spowers said this efficiency improvement is at the heart of one of the vehicle’s fundamental breakthroughs: the decoupling of steady-state and transient demand. ‘You can only truly decouple the transient and steady state demands if you have highly efficient regenerative braking,’ he said. ‘Otherwise when you come to accelerate again, the ultracapacitor won’t be topped up and you’ll have to lean on the fuel cell for rather more than 20 per cent of the power.’
Morgan itself has made significant contributions towards the vehicle’s efficiency through a vehicle-wide emphasis on weight. ‘The whole thing has been conceived around the lightest possible chassis,’ said Parkin. ‘The bodywork is aluminium, and the chassis is aluminium.’
The car maker has also tweaked the aerodynamic profile of the car throughout the production process. Parkin said the team began with a series of sketches of what a futuristic Morgan could look like. This led to a foam model, which was subjected to wind tunnel tests then to a full-scale drawing of the vehicle.
This drawing was cut into segments on a computer, printed off on paper and made into wooden templates that were then fixed together to make the 3D shape over which the bodywork has been made.
Though this is very different from Morgan’s traditional production process, Charles Morgan claimed that were the car to enter production, the firm’s approach of assembling everything by hand would make an additional contribution to the car’s small environmental footprint. ‘If we’re going to get environmental, people are probably going to have to start building cars the way we do,’ he said.
Pointing to a Cardiff University study that looked at the environmental credentials of a car throughout development, construction and use, Morgan claimed that the firm’s existing 44 model is a more environmentally correct purchase than Toyota’s Prius.
‘It’s not quite as clean,’ he said, ‘but it’s lighter, there’s a tenth of the amount of energy used in production and the car is used for longer. Our cars tend to last longer, which is a very strong argument. The throwaway culture has got to go.’
In this light, said Morgan, it is not unusual that a small company like his is involved in such an innovative project. ‘To an extent this would seem to be something that a small company could do more easily than a big company — I think there is a feeling that the big companies do have some vested interest, which makes it difficult for them to experiment quite as wildly as we can.’
Spowers agrees that small firms have a vital role to play in driving forward innovation. ‘The low-volume sector has none of the legacy constraints that the rest of the automotive industry has. This is true of any really mature technology. Whenever a disruptive technology comes along it never starts within the incumbent industries — it always starts with the outliers.’
And the UK, said Spowers, is full of exactly the right kind of small companies. ‘If you’re trying to optimise relatively mature technologies that are proven to work you need big budgets, big teams and big companies. But big breakthroughs come from integration and the great thing about integration is that it can happen with small teams, small budgets and small companies — that’s exactly why the UK became dominant in the motorsport industry. These big strides are cheaper and quicker than small strides.’
Another factor that could prove an unlikely influence on the rise of the fuel cell vehicle is the deep pockets of many of Morgan’s customers.
While stressing that the current concept car is at least two years away from satisfying the safety criteria demanded of a full production vehicle, Morgan confirmed that he already has some potential customers lined up.
He believes a fuel-cell Morgan could follow a similar production path to the company’s limited edition Aeromax, where a small number of customers effectively paid the development costs by putting down a deposit upfront.
Perhaps the biggest sticking point with fuel-cell vehicles is where you fill them up. While Morgan’s wealthier customers may have the budgets and garage space to run home refuelling units, there is currently no wider infrastructure in place.
Many companies are investigating this and one of them is LifeCar consortium member BOC Linde, which provided the hydrogen storage tank for the vehicle and has developed a prototype forecourt refuelling system.
‘We’ve tried to make it as simple and straightforward as we can,’ said Andrew Winship, the company’s hydrogen solutions manager. ‘Generally it’s a case of connect up the nozzle, lock it off with a handle and press a button — it needs to be as user-friendly as the existing technology.’
BOC Linde is involved in a number of other projects relating to hydrogen refuelling infrastructure and has even worked with companies such as BP and Shell on concepts for hydrogen filling stations, but Winship is uncertain about how the hydrogen economy will develop.
‘It may evolve in a number of ways,’ he said. ‘There are a number of regional activities which may progress to a point where they’re joined together in a network. It may evolve through large centralised systems. It may well start from commercial captive fleet vehicles like buses, which all go back to the same depot to refuel.’
Spowers is bolder with his predictions, and is now at work on a separate project, HYRBAN, which is using much of the same technology as LifeCar in the development of a two-seater urban fuel-cell car.
‘If you have an urban car you can launch it with only a city-wide infrastructure — I personally think that’s the area in which fuel-cell technology is first going to manifest itself,’ he said.
In the longer term though, Spowers is adamant that fuel cells are the only viable technology for a zero-emissions car with comparable range to existing vehicles.
Whether or not Morgan ultimately goes into production with a vehicle that makes this a reality, LifeCar will always remain an important landmark in the history of fuel-cell motoring.