It’s been a long road for fuel cell cars to get to where they are now, a possible option. It all started back in the 1980s when fuel-cells themselves had to be physically shrunk to fit into a normal car, not the back of a van. Then they had to make them affordable and the fuel able to be widely available. All of these obstacles have been overcome yet fuel cell cars still have not been mass adopted.
That is because they were not found to be very efficient. To produce the gas, compress it, and transport it is costly. However, there is a special little fuel cell car called Rasa that is drastically more economical and its creator has come up with a more efficient hydrogen distribution system too. The car and the system around are both part of a grand plan by the company Riversimple, founded by Hugo Spowers, former motor racer and mechanical engineer of race cars.
15 years ago Spowers stopped working with internal combustion engines when he had the idea of building a hydrogen-powered vehicle. He was determined to find a fundamental solution to the problems associated with carbon emissions and so he hand-built an aerodynamic car which weighs only 580 kilos, 40 kilos more than the battery of a Tesla Model S car.
The Rasa is novel and sophisticated in engineering terms. A fuel cell provides electrical energy when hydrogen is combined with oxygen. That electrical energy powers the motors while emitting only water. The car has a motor in each of its four wheels which provide drive and braking. Ultra-capacitors are used to store recovered energy from braking. A carbon tub keeps weight down, while a honed design cuts drag.
Photography: Simon Thompson
It can drive about 300 miles on a tank of just 1.5kg of hydrogen. The best part is, the hydrogen is compressed to 350bar, not the 700bar the industry majors use. This uses less energy and makes for much cheaper filling stations, hence a more economical system.
If that’s not good enough, the Rasa is so green that its well-to-wheel CO2 emissions (even if the hydrogen is synthesized from natural gas) are about 40g/km. That CO2 figure is a lot better than any electric car that uses the UK’s mix of electricity generation.
Spowers gave up being a motor racer because he wants to save the world. Everything in the Riversimple’s business plan aligns to that aim. Spowers has to change everything about the traditional system and an incremental change wouldn’t do.
“Dinosaurs weren’t replaced by better dinosaurs,” he told Topgear. Each of the changes demands that other things be changed. The whole system must change, in one leap. “You can’t cross a canyon in two jumps.”
So what does this mean? The company will never sell a car. Riversimple’s drivers will pay a monthly rental fee, to include depreciation, maintenance and, crucially, fuel. Done this way, said Spowers, everything points to a car that pollutes less and depletes fewer resources.
The next step is to build charging stations for users and therefore make the product more attractive to consumers. Hydrogen cars can work alongside battery-powered electric vehicles in the future – a sustainable, greener world to come – to reduce CO2 emissions worldwide.
Correction: The article previously stated that the electricity generated by the hydrogen fuel cells was stored in the supercapacitors. This has been changed to correctly show that the supercapacitors store electricity recovered from braking.
The article also stated that there was an engine in each of its four tires, this has been changed to clarify that the car has a motor in each of its four wheels.