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Home-made bike

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Innovation isn't always pretty, as two Pennsylvania college kids have shown with a homemade hydrogen-fuel-cell motorcycle that is ugly and slow but still pretty cool.

Alex Bell and Andres Pacheco, a pair of engineering majors at Swarthmore College, told us they spent two years and about $10,000 cobbling the Frankenbike together for a class project examining the viability of hydrogen-powered transportation.

What they came up with lacks the sex appeal of, say, the hydrogen-fuel-cell Suzuki Crosscage concept, and it's about as powerful as an electric bicycle. But that doesn't make it any less impressive.

Bell and Pacheco stripped the guts out of a junked Buell Cyclone and installed a Ballard polymer exchange membrane fuel cell that provides juice to an AC induction motor.

The motor produces a whopping 1.6 horsepower and the bike tops out at 20 mph. They concede the motor is woefully underpowered, particularly given that the bike weighs 400 pounds, but they consider the bike a stepping stone.

"The data on efficiency that we collect as well as experience in the design of the vehicle can all be scaled up to larger, more practical designs," they write in a blog post.

A pair of Ergenics metal hydride cylinders hold 1,800 litres of hydrogen, according to the bike's tech specs. The cylinders contain nickel, aluminum and other metals that react with the hydrogen to form a hydride.

Such as system makes it possible to store a relatively large amount of hydrogen at low pressure and small volume.

The downside is it takes heat to release the hydrogen, which explains the giant vacuum cleaner hoses. They transfer heat from the fuel cell to the hydrogen storage cylinders.

That trick also allowed Bell and Pacheco to extend the run time of the bike from 20 minutes to about an hour.

They figure the bike is about 48 percent to 50 percent efficient. Despite the many challenges hydrogen fuel cells face when it comes to cars — Dan Neil of the Los Angeles Times calls the technology "a tragic cul-de-sac in the search for sustainable mobility" — Bell and Pacheco plan to dive into it further during grad school.

As for their unnamed fuel-cell motorcycle, it will be disassembled later this spring and the $8,000 fuel cell — which belongs to the university — will be passed along to the next project.

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