The αlpha electric bike, from Pragma Industries, is another attempt at using hydrogen as a battery in transportation, but it might only make sense for fleets.
Considering its abundance in the chemical makeup of the universe, hydrogen really seems like it ought to be more of a key player in the energy transition away from the much more finite fossil fuels. But alas, it’s exceedingly more complex than that, because we can’t just scoop up hydrogen like we can coal. If we could, perhaps we’d all be zooming around in hydrogen fuel cell electric cars right now, as many of the hydrogen boosters predicted not that long ago.
However, as Lloyd reminds us, hydrogen isn’t really an energy source, it’s a battery: “That’s because you can make it in two ways: steam-methane reformation, which means that it is a fossil fuel, and the source for 95 percent of hydrogen) or electrolysis of water, which makes it essentially a battery storing electric power.”
If, and it’s a big if, we could couple renewable energy with hydrogen production, and if (and it’s another big if) we had the infrastructure in place for consumer hydrogen filling stations, and then had affordable fuel cell electric cars readily available, then hydrogen ‘batteries’ could play a bigger part in transportation. However, there are some indications that some of those moves are already being made, such as this zero-carbon hydrogen fueling station that generates hydrogen onsite with excess electricity from renewable energy sources, and then dispenses to consumers just like any other gas station. There are arguments to be made for its suitability as a clean ‘fuel’ and equally vocal arguments against it (read the comments here or here to get a glimpse into the deep divide between the two camps).
When it comes to adapting that same technology to electric bikes, by using fuel cells fed with hydrogen and air to produce electricity (plus water and a little heat) to charge the batteries, there seems to be a resurgence of interest. The last time we covered the topic was 7 years ago, but there have been advances made over the last few years, such as this one, from Germany’s Linde Group (which is a major world supplier of industrial gases, including hydrogen).
More recently, Pragma Industries, a fuel cell company, released details about its own version of a fuel cell electric bicycle, with one of the major selling points being its ability to enable a long range and a quick refueling time, which might be a big plus for fleet or commercial use. However, there’s still the sticky question about where the electricity to power the electrolysis unit to produce the hydrogen comes from in the first place. If it actually takes more electricity to produce the hydrogen from the grid than it would to just charge an electric bike battery directly, and if that grid is powered mostly by fossil fuel sources, it’s most likely just more convenient for the rider than it is a better clean transport option.
The Pragma Industries αlpha electric bike, which the company says is “The first commercially available electrically assisted bike with a fuel cell” and worthy of a category of its own (FC-Pedelec), integrates the company’s fuel cell technology into an e-bike that has “an unrivalled range of 100km on a single charge.” The αlpha has a Brose 36V electric motor rated to 250W, which is fed by a “bridging” lithium-ion battery pack with 150 Wh of capacity, which in turn is charged by the onboard 150 W PEM fuel cell. The fuel cell runs off of a 2-liter compressed hydrogen gas cylinder, which can be refilled in about 2 minutes at a filling station made by Atawey, which Pragma contrasts with the several hour process of charging a conventional e-bike battery.
The company put out the following video about its hydrogen fuel cell bike this past summer (in French, but YouTube has a decent auto-translate subtitle option):
In addition to its boast of a long range and quick refueling time, Pragma Industries also lays claim to another benefit of its technology, which is its immunity to decreased performance in cold weather. It’s true that low temperatures can affect battery performance, but it’s not clear to what extent an average e-bike rider would actually be affected by either very low or very high temperatures.
“Whereas battery-powered Pedelecs are adversely affected by low temperatures, Alpha2.0 provides constant range and performances in every weather conditions. Equiped with a best-in-class H2 gauge, it accurately indicates the remaining energy to the user.” – Pragma Industries
There isn’t a whole lot of detailed information available about the αlpha fuel cell electric bike, but the “Light mobility” page on the Pragma Industries website seems to indicate that the bike isn’t targeted to individuals so much as it is to fleets:
Captive fleet operators, your battery management nightmares are over! αlpha offers a complete electric solution while eliminating batteries logistics which can be highly time-consuming and costly.
- Public services
- Territorial staff mobility
- Corporate staff mobility
- Last mile delivery
- Tourists rental
- Bike sharing programs
If you’re interested in learning more, there’s a great explanation of fuel cells on the Pragma Industries website, which may not turn you into a hydrogen economy booster if you’re not already in that camp, but it does offer some insight into the science and potential applications for this technology.