….and it goes “whirrrr”.

I spent today at meetings in London: it was hot, dirty and noisy and I was contributing both considerable decibelage and a fug of semi-combusted hydrocarbons to the ambience by whomping around on a 1000cc Ducati. At regular intervals the phrase, “there has to be a better way to do this”, kept springing to mind. Of course, my bicycle would have been perfect for the job. Had I been able to get it there: with a despairingly predictable lack of joined-up thinking on transport and the environment, the UK government has allowed the rail operators to ban bicycles from most services. Which has rather put a stop to that.

This evening however I’ve found that better way: I went somewhere else in space and time, to where the whole future arrives, not with a bang, but with a muted whirring – to my first close encounter with the ENV — the world’s first dedicated fuel cell powered motorcycle.

ENV bike (courtesy of Intelligent Energy)

My last entry on ducati.info was about the Ducati Desmosedici RR: the most powerful sports bike ever produced: a machine with a power to weight ratio capable of firing most riders directly into low Earth orbit and a visual attitude that lends intent to that capability. This however is about something far more important: The ENV would be hard-pushed to out-drag an pizza-hauling Honda 90. In prototype form, it borrows most of its cycle parts from a mountain bike and it demonstrates all the raw aggression of a concussed kitten.

What it does have in common with the RR is that they’ll hit the market at about the same time – late 2007. Oh yes, and they both have two wheels. However, whereas one is simply the spectacular apotheosis of current motorcycle design, the other represents the first thoughtful steps towards the era beyond oil and beyond internal combustion.

So how does a fuel cell work? Well, Wikipedia is over here – go check it out at your leisure. In essence though, you pump a fuel (in this case gaseous Hydrogen) in one end, pull in some oxygen from the atmosphere and in return you get electricity plus a little water vapour. No combustion is involved, therefore there are no combustion side-effects such as CO and CO2 — a not untrivial consideration on a greenhouse planet.

And lest at this stage you be thinking in Hs, as in, “Hydrogen = Hindenburg”, may I point out that you’ve got your hazardous gases the wrong way around: Hydrogen on its own is just fine, thankyou – it’s only when you mix it with that most reactive of gases, oxygen, that you potentially have a problem. After all, when Apollo 13 had its “Ah, Houston”, moment, it was the oxygen tank for its fuel cell that blew, not the hydrogen. And when there’s a leak, I’d much rather deal with hydrogen, which of course goes straight up, rather than petrol vapour, which hangs around with intent at ground level.

Of course you’ve got to get the hydrogen in the first place, so you need the infrastructure to generate and distribute the stuff, preferably without creating a net carbon imbalance along the way. In an ideal world, we’d generate the hydrogen directly from renewables or closed cycle sources — there’s a wonderful example on Yakushima island in Japan where Honda are testing their FCX fuel cell car. Here the electricity required for the electrolysis process (splitting water to generate hydrogen) is produced entirely by the island’s hydro-electric plant. On a household or local scale, there exist hydrogen generators (reformers), which run on a wide range of fuels including propane, LNG, gasoline, kerosene, diesel, bio-diesel and ammonia. For someone (like myself) planning a true eco-house, there therefore exists the possibility of fuelling the thing from the output of a domestic digester/fermenter. Which would take the phrase, “going like shit off a shovel”, to a whole new level of literality…

Move downstream of the fuel cell power plant and you’re completely in the realm of electrickery and the effective management of a power train that delivers maximum torque at minimum revs. An electric motorcycle is potentially the ideal wheelie machine: the challenge for the power train designer is to stop it doing so. I can cope with that.

The folks behind this remarkable and inspirational machine are Intelligent Energy, an offshoot of Loughborough University. They’re now going through all tedious but vital work needed to turn this first, albeit highly professional (it was designed by famed design firm and bike nuts Seymour Powell) technology demonstrator into reliable daily transport. Not a task to be underestimated but, with time, dogged patience and a little ingenuity, something that is entirely achievable, and achievable at a real-world price — they’re talking about £5000 or so for the first production batch.

The result will be a small powered cycle (the word motor doesn’t seem quite adequate in the circumstances) with a range of about 100 miles on 250g or so of gas, at around £4 a refill. Maximum speed is about 50mph and it delivers you from rest to 30mph in about 6 seconds – perfectly OK for the urban melée. As far as I can tell, this isn’t the sort of trade-off that battery-driven electric vehicles have: where you can either travel the specified range OR at the claimed speed, but certainly not both together. Here you’ve got a power source with a hydrogen-driven continuous output of around 1Kw (with the onboard batteries providing a short-term boost of up to 6Kw) that can provide the same sort of consumption/performance trade-off as a conventional machine. Only this time it does it silently – we’ll have to take to clipping playing cards in the spokes for appropriate sound effects.

Where the demonstrator uses a removable fuel cell and has cycle parts taken in large part from high-end mountain bikes (lovely Hope brakes and forks), the production prototype has a fixed power unit and has adopted parts from light motorcycles, not least including Ohlins suspension.

And here was the remarkable thing: a hall full of assorted biking types, who wouldn’t normally get out of bed for anything with less than 100bhp, all climbing all over, poking and prodding a machine with around 8bhp and wanting to know where and when they could buy one, self included.

There’s even better news to come for us ecopetrolheads: there now exists a compact 75Kw version of the fuel cell — that’s around 100bhp in old-speak. Hang two of those together and you’ve got something to potentially and silently worry the RR. Now you’re talking…