Swagway Teardown: What Makes a Safe Hoverboard?

From:ifixit

We teamed up with The Wirecutter and Ken Shirriff to measure the Swagway’s Swag.

The device that makes walking look pedestrian: the much-blogged-about “hoverboard.” You may have seen those super cool kids, effortlessly gliding around the supermarket while you’re stuck walking the produce section—like a chump. You may have thought to yourself, “Should I get one of those highly advanced, futuristic wheeled-transport platforms? And if I do, will it spontaneously combust, as I’ve seen so many times on YouTube?”

Note: Two-wheel hands-free self-balancing scooter is too hard to say, and this thing definitely does not hover, so we’re going to be calling this a “smartboard.” Deal with it.

Enter The Wirecutter—known for reviews that get to the point (namely, where your dollars ought to go). They took a look at the sea of outwardly identical smartboards and tried to pick a leader out of the pack. After comparing on several factors—such as customer support, warranty, hands(feet)-on testing, and inclusion (or not) of UL-certified components—they selected the Swagway smartboard as their tentative recommendation.

Why a tentative recommendation? Because when these things light on fire, that fire comes from the inside. Merely reviewing the outside isn’t quite sufficient to determine risk. We’re pretty good at taking things apart, so The Wirecutter shipped us a Swagway sample model and we went to town … after running a quick fire drill and testing our fire extinguishers.

Charger

First order of business, the UL-certified charger. There have been reports of smartboards combusting while charging—sometimes at the cost of the owner’s home. A UL listing means a device meets certain safety standards, so hopefully no house fires. This 42 V 2 A charger, manufactured by Shenzhen Fuyuandian Power Co., is indeed registered in UL’sdatabase.

But we can’t stop there. What does a UL-certified charger look like on the inside? Well, if we’re honest, a little messy.

But pretty safe. There’s a lot of ugly looking goop, but beneath that, well insulated and well secured components make us think this thing is unlikely to explode. Looks like a pretty no-frills application of voodoo magic. And by that I mean we’re going to need a little help to decode this device. So we got in touch with charger guru and hobbyist hacker Ken Shirrff of Righto.com, and asked for a bit of help. Here’s what he had to say:

Looks like a straightforward flyback switching power supply. I don’t see any cause for complaints. The separation between primary and secondary looks good—the black line and cutout in the board. There are several ESD discharge points (the “teeth”) to discharge any high voltage. The transformer looks good from the outside. The traces with solder on them are normal: it decreases the resistance and increases the current-carrying capacity: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gy1K3ayPfOk

…The charger looks solid. I don’t see any corners cut. The design is ‘unchallenging’—they didn’t try to make it as small as possible; Apple probably would have made it half the size.

Board

On to the smartboard! We found some super reassuring warning labels (click the image for a better view). Yep, nothing to worry about here.

Looks like someone flunked out of a certification. There’s a suspicious hole in that line of approvals…

We get our first look inside, and things look… not bad! Given the reputation these boards have garnered, we were expecting to find some serious jank. Instead, at first glance things seem pretty tidy and safe, without any obvious cut corners. Wires and connectors are all safely insulated, the battery and main board are on opposite sides (for balance and to keep them away from each other). Wires passed through the central rotating joint are covered in plastic sleeves to protect them from rubbing.

The Smart Bits

The board is also smart enough to not drive around without you. Riders need both feet firmly planted on the board or it won’t be going anywhere. Just how does the board know you’re properly mounted? Each foot pad has two infrared sensors—one at the toe, one at the heel. Stepping down on the pad pushes a peg between emitter and receiver. Only when all four sensors are blocked are you ready to roll.

Blocking the four infrared emitters assures the board that it has a rider.

Those sensor switches live on the backs of the two gyro boards—one for each wheel. These boards are largely responsible for the “smart” part of smartboard. Each board is home to an Invensense MPU6050 6-axis gyroscope+accelerometer, and a GigaDeviceGD32F130 ARM Cortex-M3 32-bit microcontroller (thanks, Ken!). The ARM chips are responsible for reading the infrared switches, controlling the sweet underglow headlights and top-mounted indicator LEDs, and collating and sending data from the MPU6050 to the main board (more on that later).

One of the two gyro boards, one for each motor.

Image courtesy of Chipworks

For a closer look at the MPU6050 gyro+accelerometer, similar to the 6500 series found in an iPhone 6, Chipworks was happy to share a die photo or two.

Battery

The real star of the show here, and point of most concern, is the firestarter lithium ion battery pack.

Those are some of the handiest tips we’ve ever seen.

Looks like we’ve got a “Shilly-car” lithium battery operating at 36 V with 4.4 Ah (that works out to 158 Wh—just over four times the capacity of an iPad Pro). We’re pretty sure shilly car is a Chinese term for scooter. There isn’t too much to tell from the shrinkwrap. There’s no UL certification on the pack, and no reassuring name brand like Samsung, Sony, or LG—but we can’t judge a battery by its cover.

Inside, we find a tidy block of 20 LG batteries with their own protection board. These are LG ICR18650B4 batteries—we’re glad to see a reputable brand in here! These batteries have a nominal voltage of 3.6, and capacity of 2600 mAh. Just for funs, we turned that into Wh (20 batteries * 3.6 V * 2.6 Ah), and got 187.2 Wh. That’s significantly higher than the 158 Wh from the specs on the shrinkwrap. Li-ion batteries should never be fully discharged, so it’s likely that the battery protection board prevents the cells from discharging their full capacity, and the overall battery pack capacity reflects that.

Speaking of the protection board: this is a Shenzen Dalishen Technology DDJ10A9 (the board in that product photo got a much better soldering job than ours). Those four large components are MOSFETs responsible for charging and discharging, and have pretty skimpy solder joints. So far this is the only sketchiness we’ve seen, although it is a bit concerning. These particular solder joints are going to see a lot of power as the battery is charging and discharging.

Motor Control Board

And now we have the motor control board, the heart and brain of the smartboard—it’s responsible for when and where to throw all that battery power. Another GigaDevices ARM Cortex-M3 runs the show here—this time the GD32F103 (the more powerful sibling of the F130 we saw on the gyro boards). Speaking of ARM processors, if you’d like to know more about ARM architecture—our expert witness Ken Shirriff is currently reverse engineering the original ARM1 processor over at his blog righto.com.

Identified by Ken, the main focus of the control board is the six half-H drivers, which drive two 3-phase motors. If that doesn’t make any sense to you (it didn’t to me), read up on it here: http://ebldc.com/?p=147

The TL;DR is that a brushless motor has no commutator—no mechanical means of switching currents around while the motor spins. So you’ve got to do it with electronics, in a really clever way. Switching currents with electronics means lots of transistors, and switching power to a hefty motor means lots of big transistors. Hence the 12 large MOSFETs surrounding the board, screwed down to a thick metal plate, serving as a heatsink (and, incidentally, as a stiffener and support for the control board).

Also of note are a couple pairs of 0.007 ohm resistors by the power inlet (R007). Resistors like these, with very low resistance, are used to sense current. They’re placed in series with a load, creating a small voltage drop that will be proportional to the current flowing through it (Ohm’s law, V=IR). The microcontroller can read that voltage, apply Ohm’s law, and keep an eye on current. That way it can shut things down if a motor stalls out and tries to burn up (another nice safety feature!). That’s not to say that the smartboard won’t spontaneously combust—it just won’t burn a motor out while you’re rolling around.

Green to blue—what do I do, blue to yellow—kill a fellow?

Taking a closer look at the control board, we find some more minor quality issues. The motor power lines have some interesting (read: completely mismatched) color coordination going on—fixers take note. More worrisome, however, are the uninsulated, unsupported joints attaching these lines to the mainboard. We’d rather see a connector on the board or even a blob of hot glue to support to these big wires. At least they’ve got plenty of solder.

Motors

At this point you might be scratching your head, wondering what actually makes this thing go. Saving the best for last, we cracked open one of the mysteriously heavy wheels to get a look at the previously-hinted-at brushless DC motor. It takes eight wires to run these—three large power leads for the three phases (controlled by the motor control board), and five leads for the Hall effect sensors that track the rotor’s position. The feedback from those sensors lets those big transistors on the motor control board know when to switch, making for a nice smooth ride.

Heavy wheel motor with removed hub cap.

TL;DR

Barring a couple of important nitpicks, this is a well-constructed board.

+ Insulation where it’s needed, good use of connectors and protection against rubbing on wires
+ Current sensing resistors for anti-stall
+ It’s repairable! We tore this thing to the ground and it’s gonna go back together right quick
+ Common Phillips screws, modular components, no desoldering to disassemble
– Poor solder on battery protection board
– Motor leads need some extra support on the control board

All in all, this seems like a good smartboard—but I can’t recommend it as better than the rest without seeing the inside of every other smartboard. At the very least, it probably won’t turn into a Viking funeral pyre on wheels—but no guarantees. Hover at your own risk, friends.
Thanks again to The Wirecutter for providing the board, and to Ken Shirriff for his invaluable electronics excellence.

Chicago customs officers seize more than 16,000 counterfeit hoverboards

BY: Brianna GurciulloContact Reporter Chicago Tribune

U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Chicago field office has seized more than 16,000 hoverboards, worth about $6 million, after finding that they posed a health risk and used trademark logos without authorization.

The two-wheeled, motorized boards — which are powered by lithium-ion batteries — have reportedly caught fire while users were charging or riding them. Many of the hoverboards seized by the Chicago field office came from China and have false seals of approval from Northbrook-based Underwriters Laboratories, which tests products for safety and certification.

William Ferrara, director of field operations for the Chicago Customs and Border Protection office, said the fake UL markings give consumers a “false sense of security.” Some of the hoverboards also had counterfeit Samsung logos.

“The batteries do not meet safety standards, and the chargers as well,” Ferrara said at a news conference Wednesday. He said some chargers don’t shut off automatically when the batteries are finished charging, which could lead to an explosion.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is investigating at least 40 reports of fires related to hoverboards in 19 states. It is also examining the safety of boards from 13 manufacturers, importers and distributors. Commission staff are specifically looking at the components and design of battery packs and circuit boards.

Some Illinois universities have banned or restricted the use of hoverboards on their campuses. Metra and U.S. airlines have prohibited the devices as well.

Ferrara stood in a warehouse in Bensenville in front of rows and rows of stacked cardboard boxes containing the hoverboards. And those accounted for only about half of the hoverboards the office has seized. The others were held in another part of the building and in a second warehouse.

On one box, the label said the item’s shipper was in Shenzhen, China. Under consignee, a Miami address was listed. The package apparently departed from Hong Kong and was sent to O’Hare International Airport.

Some hoverboards came from an ocean container, while others were discovered in air shipments, Ferrara said. A number of shippers and importers were involved. “Due to the work of our officers and import specialists, word got around the smuggling community,” and shipments to Chicago have stopped, he said.

“Quite frankly, it came down to good, old-fashion officers going out, opening up boxes based on their knowledge and realizing that something wasn’t right here,” Ferrara said. Officers worked with trademark owners to determine whether markings were real.

“They use every different thing they can,” customs spokesman Kris Grogan said. “Some of them will just be cheap knockoffs, while others will be trying to come in under a fake name.”

Hoverboards, which don’t actually hover in the air, became a popular holiday gift item in 2015. Riders stand on the board, which has a single wheel on each side, and shift their weight to make it move. Some can cruise at 10 or 12 mph.

Customs and Border Protection is calling the number of seized hoverboards a record for the nation. The office still has more shipments to process, which will make the total even larger. The counterfeit hoverboards will be destroyed, Ferrara said.

Officer James Putman took apart a hoverboard and showed how it looks inside. Within the black board was thin plastic sheeting that held 24 cylindrical lithium-ion batteries, Putman said. The batteries were stacked together and hard-wired to a circuit board. He said most hoverboards he’s seen have similar configurations.

The inside also had a Samsung marking, which made it appear like the company had approved or made the batteries.

“I’ve opened some very expensive hoverboards with the exact same configuration who have also violated trademarks,” Putman said. “So just because you spent more doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe. It might have come in fancier packaging and they put a glossier finish on it, but it still could be constructed in an unsafe manner and could still be violating trademark.”

Putman suggested that shoppers take a look at a hoverboard’s power adapter before they buy it. If the power adapter has a UL mark, he recommends noting the file number and searching for it on UL’s online certifications directory. Putman said consumers should also check whether the battery pack is well-anchored.

Why Hoverboards Are Catching Fire and How To Avoid It?

As hoverboards become the number one item on almost every child’s (and some adults) Christmas wish list, reports have emerged over the past week that some models have shorted out and caught fire. One particular case resulted in a hoverboard exploding and catching fire causing substantial damage to the victims home. The concern for the safety and quality of the manufacturing of the hoverboards even prompted the online retail giant Amazon to temporarily delist the products.

When contemplating giving toys/products to children, safety is paramount and the possibility of hoverboards exploding and catching fire is obviously a source of great concern and perhaps even anxiety if you have already purchased one or if your child has requested one for Christmas. So the relevant questions to ask are,  “why are they exploding?” and “is there anything we can do to ensure we do not become victims to the exploding hoverboard?”

A Hoverboard burned to ashes
A Hoverboard burned to ashes / Image Source: BBC

The primary reason for such exploding malfunctions rests with the quality and type of battery used. Hoverboards typically use Lithium-ion batteries commonly found in mobile phones, tablets  laptops, RC toys etc. They are robust and can withstand repeated charging – however, manufacture them cheaply or misuse them and they can cause significant damage, injury or even be fatal.

Making hoverboards available to the mass market means keeping price reasonable which in turn means the manufacturing of the batteries is being done on the cheap as often batteries are the largest expose in such toys.

Another reason is misuse. Batteries are heavy and on a balance board, they have to be strategically placed in order to not offset the balance of the hoverboard. This means the battery needs to be placed just beneath the feet which, when misused, can dislodge. User error should not be overlooked either. It is not uncommon for even the best and most expensively manufactured batteries to explode due to things such as overcharging or using a third party charger with wrong voltage.

Jay Whitacre, a qualified professor in the field of material science and engineering at Carnegie Mellon University told, “If there is no proper protection to the cells, and if the charger is defective, the cells can be severely overcharged. In cases of severe overcharge, even perfectly made cells will eventually fail, though a fire is not always the outcome in this case. The cell may just pop its gas vent and dry out.”

There is no sure fire way of making such toys 100% safe. Caution and common sense must prevail. Avoid cheap imports and buy ones from reputable manufacturers where quality materials are used such as Razer, Moreover, IO Hawk, Phunkeeduck and Swagway and Jetson Electric etc. It may be. Or expensive but what price safety of children?

Why Hoverboards Keep Exploding

Why-Hoverboards-Are-Catching-Fire-and-How-To-Avoid-It

“hoverboards” don’t actually hover. But that’s not the strangest thing about them—that would be the fact that this year’s most popular holiday gift keeps catching on fire.

But what is actually causing all these fires? In the New York and Louisiana incidents, the board was plugged in and recharging. In the mall incident, the board wasn’t plugged in at all; there have also been reports of scooters bursting into flames while people were riding them. Plugged in or not, the big problem has to do with the quality of the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries inside these things. They’re almost always tucked in one of the foot rests, and they work the same way as the lithium-ion batteries in our smartphones, tablets, and laptops. They’re just a lot more prone to defects.

Jay Whitacre, Professor of Materials Science & Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, says that the problem doesn’t have to do with these self-balancing scooters themselves, but with the quality of the batteries being used. They’re cheap, and it makes sense: This is a hot (pun not intended) holiday product, the reputable models are pretty expensive, and more-affordable brands are using cheaper components to lure in shoppers that don’t want to spend a grand or more on a hands-free Segway. Predictably, a slew of cut-rate brands are flooding the market with shoddy scooters made from cheapo components.

“There are a lot of factories in China that now make Li-ion batteries, and the reality is that the quality and consistency of these batteries is typically not as good as what is found in top tier producers such as LG or Samsung,” Whitacre says. “These are known as ‘low cost li-ion batteries’ by most in the industry—they are not knockoffs or copies, but are instead just mass-manufactured cells.”

With these cheap batteries, a lot of things can cause fires. For one, the nature of a scooterboard—it can bang into stuff, smash into things at high speeds, and be abused by bros—makes the batteries susceptible to damage. It’s not just the nature of a cheap battery, it’s the nature of any lithium-ion battery. And when one of these batteries punctures, this is what happens:

In a cheaper battery, Whitacre says the separator between each battery’s anode and cathode—which are what the current flows through—may not be aligned correctly. Image it like this: The cathode is at one end of the battery, the anode at the other, and the separator is (surprise!) between them; its job is to keep them apart so nothing short circuits. An issue, in the cheaper batteries, is there could be small holes in the separator thanks to impurities in metal particles that can puncture the anode/cathode separator. In either of those cases, the damage can cause a short circuit.

“If there is an inherent defect in the cell, it will go off at some point,” Whitacre explains. “Small defects in the manufacturing or materials stream lead to the plus/minus sides of the batteries being shorted with each other after a small amount of use. When this happens, especially when the batteries are charged, a lot of heat is generated inside the cells and this leads to electrolyte boiling, the rupture of the cell casing, and then a significant fire.”

That fire can build upon itself and be hard to contain. Whitacre says all lithium-ion batteries contain highly flammable electrolytes that burn “fast and hard” when air hits them. When things get hot, common cathode materials turn into additional oxygen sources, too. “This stokes the fire even more,” Whitacre says.

This is not new at all: Lithium-ion batteries have long led to explosions—in smartphones, laptops, airplanes, cars…the list goes on. Lithium-ion batteries are great because they are small but hold a lot of energy, so electronics manufacturers are obviously going to use them. But packing all that power can come with its risks in some products—that risk specifically being fire. That’s why our high-powered, long-range electric cars, like those made by Tesla, have highly advanced cooling fans and heat-sink systems. The fan is the key component inside the vehicle that keeps the battery cells operating at a safe temperature.

The batteries in hoverboards may not be the only problem, though. It’s less common, but a defective charger could also cause problems with any electronic device.

“If there is not proper protection to the cells, and if the charger is defective, the cells can be severely overcharged,” Whitacre says. “In cases of severe overcharge, even perfectly made cells will eventually fail, though a fire is not always the outcome in this case. The cell may just pop its gas vent and dry out.”

So what can a consumer do if they really have their heart set on one of these bad boys? Conventional wisdom would say they should just stick with top tier brands, but this is where things get confusing, because this product category is totally new, and no exemplars of quality have emerged. A higher price should be an indicator of better quality, but companies such as IO Hawk and Hovertrax, which make more-expensive devices, aren’t exactly perennial tech powerhouses. This “hoverboard” trend is almost certainly a fad, and it’s hard to know whether any of these companies will be around at this time next year.

Regardless of how much you’re paying, it’s almost impossible to tell what kind of fire hazard lurks (or doesn’t lurk) inside any scooter. The scariest part is that you may not find out until it’s far too late.

“There is no way to tell when buying, since the catastrophic failure likely will not manifest until the battery is fully charged and discharged several times,” Whitacre explains. “This charging/discharging mechanically exercises the guts of the cell and typically provides the ultimate trigger for the failure.”

If all of this hasn’t diffused (that pun was intended) your excitement for a board, then at the very least, you should know how to put out a fire—keep a fire extinguisher or bucket of water handy, friends.1

1UPDATE 1:15 PM ET 12/14/15: We incorrectly said water couldn’t put out a lithium-ion-created fire—that’s only true of lithium metal. Water will work on your hoverboard-related fires.

via:wired

Father thrown into the air by faulty hoverboard is left with AMNESIA and no memory of Chrismas

A father who who hit his head in an accident after being thrown to the ground by a faulty hoverboard has been left with amnesia.

Mark Tamlin, of Chessington, Surrey, ordered the gadget to give to his oldest son for Christmas – but was dismayed when it didn’t work.

The 39-year-old says the online company he bought it from sent him a video tutorial to fix it, and he managed to get it working.

But when his son 12-year-old son Owen said it was still faulty, he decided to try the device himself.

Moments after jumping on, he was thrown into the air before hitting his head hard on the ground.

Upon waking, he found himself in a hospital bed, unable to remember Christmas with his family.

Mark Tamlin has been left with amnesia and unable to remember Christmas after being thrown to the ground by a faulty hoverboard he bought as a gift for his son

Mr Tamlin woke up in hospital after the accident. Describing what happened, he said: 'My sons told me that it started vibrating really fast, then it threw me up in the air and I hit the back of my head on the ground’

Mr Tamlin, a civil engineer, said: ‘When I was thrown off it, both my sons were apparently screaming and crying. They were terrified.’

He added: ‘It’s lucky I was on it and not one of my sons – one of them could have been seriously hurt. ‘

The gadget, a two-wheeled toy, became the ‘must have’ present of this year after celebrities such as Kendall Jenner, Jessica Alba and Qiz Khalifa were been seen riding it.

from:http://www.dailymail.co.uk/

HOW TO SPOT A SAFE HOVERBOARD

In the past few months, hoverboard companies have come under fire for issuing products that can suddenly explode.

Many of these occurrences were found to be a result of counterfeit devices. 

One consumer found instructions that include: ‘Get off the bus, get off before you stop intelligent drifting scooter balance state, one foot down, the other one foot in the left drifting scooter again.’

KCC Trading Standards Operations Manager James Whiddett said: ‘The first thing consumers should do is check the packaging. 

‘They won’t have manufacturer details on them.

‘Plugs won’t go into your socket properly and without a fuse, they’re very dangerous. 

‘The product itself should have a CE mark on it and the ones we have found have nothing on them at all.

‘These things have batteries in them that can overheat and catch fire and we’ve seen that happen in the county already. Remember the golden rule, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.’

The instructions should contain all the information you need to use the product safely and the manufacturers name and address should be included so you can contact them if anything goes wrong.

Check for spelling mistakes on the box; this is a giveaway for counterfeits. They also often copy safety marks, so take a close look to be sure they are genuine. 

2 dogs killed, family displaced after suspected hoverboard fire

A hoverboard is likely to blame for a California fire that killed two dogs – and is just one of 40 similar fires in 19 states now being investigated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The latest blaze, at a family home in Santa Rosa, broke out at around 5pm on Tuesday while the device was plugged into a wall socket to charge, fire crews said.

The homeowner, David Carpenter, was out at the time, picking up his daughter from soccer practice.

Scroll down for video  

Tragedy: Boo and Bella were victims of a house fire in California on Tuesday that the authorities say was caused by the popular hoverboard toy 

Aftermath: The house fire that destroyed this home (pictured) occurred just as the Consumer Product Safety Commission announced that they are investigating 40 fires in 19 states 

BooBella
 Left at home: Mr Carpenter said that he usually took his dogs Boo (left) and Bella (right) to the soccer field but decided not to on this occasion

Carpenter said of the toy to KTVU: ‘It’s like selling kids bombs.’

He told the Press Democrat that he usually takes his dogs Bella and Boo with him to the soccer field, but decided not to on this occasion.

According to neighbors, smoke and flames were pouring out of the upstairs windows while the two dogs were trapped inside.

Carpenter told KTVU that Bella and Boo were sleeping in the room with the hoverboard when the fire started.

Ashley Haskins, who lives nearby, said her husband Dean and another neighbor attempted to get into the house to rescue the animals but found the doors locked.

David CarpenterHis daughter's charred doll

Saved by chance: Carpenter said he’s lucky his daughter wasn’t home sleeping, otherwise she could have suffered the same tragic fate as their two dogs. Pictured right is one of his daughter’s charred dolls

The Consumer Product Safety Commission announced in a statement on Wednesday that they commend retailers like Amazon for offering refunds to anyone who ever bought a hoverboard from their website

The Consumer Product Safety Commission announced in a statement on Wednesday that they commend retailers like Amazon for offering refunds to anyone who ever bought a hoverboard from their website

Refund: Amazon's refund offer is the latest in a series of hiccups for hoverboards, which have been banned by all three major U.S. airlines, along with smaller airlines

Refund: Amazon’s refund offer is the latest in a series of hiccups for hoverboards, which have been banned by all three major U.S. airlines, along with smaller airlines

The Catalyst That Finally Gets Fuel Cell Vehicles on the Road?

Photo: Team FAST

One problem that has been plaguing the development of hydrogen-fueled vehicles is that hydrogen gas needs to be stored and transported in expensive pressurized tanks. Liquid energy carriers such as hydrogen dissolved in a salt solution are viewed as possible alternatives, but they’re also fraught with problems including the accumulation of byproducts. The simplest hydrogen carrier is water. But splitting hydrogen from oxygen requires, besides catalysts, a lot of energy.

But now a research group called Team FAST, comprising students at the Technical University Eindhoven (TUE), in the Netherlands, thinks it has the hydrogen storage problem licked. To supply the one-meter-long scale model fuel cell vehicle they’ve developed with as much hydrogen as it needs, they’ve turned to formic acid (HCOOH). The liquid compound that can be created by joining carbon dioxide molecules with hydrogen with the help of catalysts and stored under atmospheric pressure. What’s more, catalysts can do the job of splitting formic acid into hydrogen and CO2—without an external energy source.

Though this idea is not new, the efficiency of catalysts had been too low to deliver a stream of hydrogen sufficient to run fuel cells that could power a car. That is, until research completed last year by Georgy Filonenko, a recently-departed graduate student there, led to the discovery of a catalyst that is 10 times as efficient.

“The catalyst is a ruthenium complex which dissolves in the formic acid, and it is so active that you need only, what I call ‘homeopathic’ quantities, to dissociate the formic acid,” says Emiel Hensen, a chemist who supervised Filonenko’s PhD research. Besides being required in small quantities, the ruthenium complex is, unlike other catalysts, not fouled by air or water, facilitating its use in a automotive applications, says Hensen.

To test out the advance, the FAST team set out, a year and a half ago, to build a working an one-meter scale model of a hydrogen car. It contains an off-the-shelf fuel cell and a catalytic reactor the size of a coffee mug, explains Pieter Ottink, who is the spokesperson for the team. Having shown off this proof-of-concept version, they say the next step is to power a full-scale model, hopefully by the end of this year. The team also reports that they have struck a deal with a company that will supply them with a hydrogen bus.

“We are not yet sure about how we will design the big system; scaling up a chemical reaction like this is dependent on a lot of variables,” says Ottink.  However, they plan to proceed carefully. “It does not seem to be efficient to make one big reactor, so we will [likely equip the bus with] multiple small ones,” he says. But who knows? “This technology is in a very early stage,” Ottink adds.

A fortuitous coincidence will certainly make things easier, however. “The catalytic reaction is efficient at around 80 degrees C, so you should warm it up. We have the advantage that the fuel cell also produces heat, and this heat can be used to warm up the reactor,” says Ottink.

Unfortunately, the CO2 liberated during the catalytic reaction is released into the air. But if the formic acid can be produced in a sustainable way—by, say, drawing CO2 from the flues of fossil-fueled power plants—the process would be carbon neutral.

By Alexander Hellemans

Motor insurers form alliance to tackle driverless cars

Britain’s biggest motor insurers have joined forces to respond to the rise of driverless cars, as the technology threatens to turn their industry upside down and hit profits.

Direct Line, Aviva and Admiral are among the 11 companies behind a newly-created group that plans to represent the insurance industry as the Government decides how to prepare for the onset of self-driving technology on Britain’s roads.

Driverless cars are expected to lead to a dramatic reduction in accidents, cutting insurance premiums by up to 80pc in 25 years’ time. They could also shift liability for accidents from drivers to vehicle manufacturers, meaning a complete restructuring of how the industry operates.

The Automated Driving Insurance Group, led by the trade body the Association of British Insurers, will present a united front as the Government prepares new laws for driverless vehicles.

The group, also including Axa, LV and Zurich, will examine how the industry should respond to the rise of autonomous cars, including how to insure them and contributing to government discussions on regulation. The group, which is being led by David Williams, Axa’s head of underwriting, held its first meeting in December.

Car manufacturers are gradually introducing “assisted driving” features into their vehicles that brake and park automatically, and are able to stay within their lanes independently. It is seen as a step towards fully-autonomous cars, which can drive without any human input, and could be on roads in as little as five years.

Thatcham Research, the insurance industry’s research arm, has estimated that insurance premiums could fall by 50pc by 2025 and 80pc by 2040 as safety improves dramatically. Although claims will also fall, profits are expected to be under threat as revenues shrink.

Insurers could also find themselves dealing with vehicle manufacturers, rather than drivers, as responsibility for accidents moves to those who have designed driverless car technology, forcing them to re-evaluate their business models.

The Government has pledged to amend road laws by 2018 to account for the rise of driverless cars, or cars that are semi-autonomous. This could allow for car companies to be liable for damage and injury, meaning that the companies would have to take out insurance policies.

Google driverless carHow Google’s cars see the road  Photo: Google

“Contrary to what some people might expect, insurers are not standing in the way of this development but actively looking to support progress and innovation,” James Dalton, director of general insurance policy at the ABI, said.

“The role of motor insurance in such a future will be very different to what it is today, but insurance will be part of the picture.”

Driverless cars were tested on British roads for the first time last year, while Google has been testing its own technology in California since 2012. The company has said it wants to see its fully-driverless cars on the road in 2020.