for National Geographic News
A record-breaking race car powered by a hydrogen fuel cell offers proof that development of alternative-energy vehicles is well under wayand that widespread use of eco-cars might be on the horizon.
The car, called the PAC-Car II, set a world record in fuel efficiency earlier this year when it achieved the equivalent of 12,665 miles a gallon (5,384 kilometers a liter) of gasoline.
The record was broken at the Shell Eco-Marathon this June in Ladoux, France. During the race, the vehicle consumed just 0.036 ounces (about a gram) of hydrogen to drive 12.85 miles (20.68 kilometers) at an average speed of 19 miles (30 kilometers) an hour.
The PAC-Car II showcases technologies the automobile industry is developing for fuel-efficient roadworthy vehicles, said Lino Guzzella, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.
The low-profile, aerodynamic car weighs about 66 pounds (30 kilograms) and runs solely on a hydrogen fuel cell that powers two electric motors. The driver sits in a prone position and steers with a joystick.
"The reason why [it's so efficient] is simple: It takes much less energy to move it around. Mechanical loss has been minimized," Guzzella, who oversaw the student-led PAC-Car II project, said.
John Heywood is a professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Sloan Automotive Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. He said eco-race cars like PAC-Car II are fun and have important technical benefits.
"But of course they are not realor perhaps a better way to say it is they occupy a very special reality," he said, referring to the commercial potential of the concept car.
The technologies and concepts that make PAC-Car II so fuel efficientlightweight materials, aerodynamic design, hydrogen fuel cellsare well known in the automotive industry, Guzzella said.
One automobile manufacturer is already adopting some of the computer hardware and software that help PAC-Car II run. But the eco-car's current design is not directly transferable to roadworthy vehicles, he added.
"This is not something you are going to see on the road. It was meant to beat the world record That was the objective," he said. When the project started, the world record stood at 9,455 miles a gallon (4,020 kilometers a liter).
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