Eco-Friendly Transportation Designers

Climate change is easily the most heavily-debated issue around the globe in the 21st century, and while decisive state action has not yet materialized, many socially-conscious citizens feel that grassroots action on a global scale is the only way to avoid environmental disaster.
The search for environmentally-friendly methods of transportation that could replace traditional fossil-fuel based cars and carbon-emitting airplanes is just one example of the global attempt to combat climate change – and one that has seen many of the world’s best design and technology professionals stepping up to the podium.

The key problems with current transportation solutions are the dependence on oil-based fuels and the high levels of carbon emissions that are associated with burning these types of fuel. The innovative designers who have worked – and are currently working – to change the face of modern transportation for the good of the environment have kept the reduction of oil dependence and carbon emissions at the center of their agendas, and seek to marry solutions to these problems with outstanding style to form revolutionary transportation designs.

From Bombay to Brighton: The Global Journey of the Rickshaw

Rickshaws – or tuk-tuks, as the motor-powered variety are known – have been in existence in one form or another since the early nineteenth-century and function as essential forms of transport in many parts of the developing world. The original rickshaws were two-wheeled carts pulled by a person on foot, and later innovations saw the pedestrian 'puller' replaced with person on a bike.

Although rickshaws have been banned in a number of developing countries, they are becoming more popular in the environmentally conscious West. These traditional forms of transportation are now found in New York, San Diego, London, Rome and Amsterdam.

Rickshaws are environmentally friendly, not just because they are human-powered, but also because they are small and lightweight and help to combat traffic congestion.

In India, rickshaw travel has been completely revolutionized by ICRIP. The vehicles are now fully recyclable and recycled, and up to 30% lighter thanks to innovative advancements in their construction. Matheran, an area known for its eco-friendliness, has banned motor vehicles and replaced them with human-pulled rickshaws.

Brighton is a coastal area of the UK that was selected as the host for the first trial of a pioneering project to revolutionize public transport across Europe. The city's new fleet of tuk-tuks runs on compressed natural gas, making them virtually carbon-neutral and fully sustainable.

John Jostins and the Microcab

The rickshaw isn't the only option being utilized to address city travel in an eco-friendly way.  John Jostins, a British television and film designer who has worked on Dr. Who, Blackadder, and The Empire Strikes Back, has invented his own solution called the Microcab.

Working on Dennis Potter's Cold Lazarus (in 1995) and designing futuristic vehicles, Jostins's attention was drawn to increasing traffic congestion as well as the lack of innovation in contemporary vehicle design. Two years later he had prepared an initial design for the Microcab.

Jostins began to realize his vision with a DTI grant and the help of a team of twelve students and staff at Coventry University in the UK. The team worked together over several years to develop a prototype of a vehicle that was powered by a sustainable fuel and produced no carbon emissions. The Microcab has no combustion engine and is fueled by electricity created in the reaction between hydrogen and carbon. The resultant exhausr, therefore, is simply water vapor. The Microcab utilizes 'regenerative braking' technology that is able to convert kinetic energy into battery power when braking or descending downhill. It weighs as little as 350kg, and the absence of a combustion engine means that the vehicle is virtually silent.

Safety has long been a key issue in the development of hydrogen engines as hydrogen is much more flammable than fossil fuel, making it a potentially dangerous substance to carry around in moving vehicles! However, the inventors of the Microcab have responded to this problem with a ‘gunfire resistant’ fuel tank and hypersensitive hydrogen-leak detectors on board the vehicle – passing rigorous safety checks and satisfying strict health and safety regulations.

The limited availability of hydrogen fuel and the vehicle's top speed of 30mph are two drawbacks that should not be overlooked, but a series of pilot projects are planned for different cities around the UK, and Jostins hopes to use findings from these trials to refine and improve Microcab's design.

Lee Roebuck and the Air-Powered Engine

Tractor design is an area that has been largely overlooked since the late nineteenth-century, but a 22-year-old student from the north of England has developed a revolutionary design as a part of his final year dissertation. The design is based on the respected David Brown brand and is essentially an air-powered tractor engine, built around an 'air reservoir' that utilizes air compression to power the engine. The innovative design also makes for accurate handling and for the reduction of blind spots.

This air-powered tractor is, again, a slow moving vehicle; but – like Microcab – it forms another important contribution to eco-friendly transportation for commercial sectors in which high speeds are not obligatory. Roebuck's tutor, Rob Leeman, described the design as “a truly environmentally friendly solution to farming in the future.”

GM Advanced Design: Roadworthy Rubbish

One of the most innovative and extraordinary environmentally friendly transport designs we have ever seen was awarded first prize in the Los Angeles Auto Show Design Challenge last year.

GM Advanced responded to the 2006 challenge to design a vehicle that was completely recyclable and built to last no more than sixty months. GM Advanced received first prize for their design of the 'Hummer O2'.

The Hummer's frame, seats and windows are made entirely from recycled materials, and incredibly, its external panels are filled with algae that converts carbon dioxide into pure oxygen and releases it back into the atmosphere. This process of photosynthesis is controlled by valve systems in the door panels that ensures the correct conditions for algae cultivation and oxygen production are maintained.

The Hummer is powered by a hydrogen engine that is integrated into the center of the vehicle, and four fuel cells mounted into the wheels that control separate hydraulic motors. By addressing both the fuel/exhaust problem and the issue of recycling, this vehicle is a true standout – but as most drivers prefer a vehicle that lasts longer than five years, its commercial potential would seem to be limited at best.

The Toyota Prius: The Coolest Alternative to Global Warming

The Toyota Prius is not only the first mass-produced hybrid car, it’s also an über-trendy, A-List celebrity must-have and probably the most successful attempt at making fuel conservation cool.

This unique, 1.5 liter hybrid car (first released on to the market in Japan in 1997) can run solely on its battery for periods of time, but it still requires the burning of fossil fuel for acceleration – so it represents an excellent step forward on a journey to environmental balance that is not yet complete. The Environmental Protection Agency estimated the fuel consumption rates of the Toyota Prius at 45-48mpg, and the engine is designed to reduce the volume of gasoline vapor that escapes, so it is certainly a far less polluting vehicle than any other of its size and engine capacity.

The Prius has numerous intelligent design features, but one of the best is its ‘stealth mode.’ This is the automatic engine shut-down (and switch to electric power) that is enacted when the car requires less energy – such as at stoplights, when sailing down a hill, or when crawling through heavy traffic. The Prius' frame and tires are designed to reduce air resistance, making it more energy efficient, but it also has the ability to capture the kinetic energy when braking or traveling downhill (energy that is wasted in most vehicles) which it uses to recharge the battery.

There has been some debate in the press following accusations by journalist Chris Demorro that nickel mining and smelting by Toyota in the area surrounding their Ontario factory has caused environmental devastation. Demorro described the Prius factory as “the plague factory,” and cited Toyota’s nickel farming as the cause of “acid rain . . . so bad it destroyed all the plants and soil”. Toyota has vehemently denied these claims, asserting that the damage “occurred more than thirty years ago, long before the Prius was made” – and that, in fact, the company has made a real commitment to rejuvenating the area. The spokesman claims that the company has overseen the planting of 11 million trees in the region, has reduced destructive emissions by 90%, and has received an award from the Ontario Ministry for Environment for doing so.

Intelligent Energy, Seymourpowell and the ENV

The ENV (Emissions Neutral Vehicle) is the result of a project by Intelligent Energy, designer Seymourpowell, and manufacturer Suzuki to develop a lightweight, emission-free motorcycle powered by fuel cell technology.

The sleek, stylish motorcycle has a top speed of 50mph and is entirely powered by electricity and hydrogen. Its engine is almost completely silent, and it produces emissions that are literally drinkable! But the pinnacle of its innovative design is the detachable fuel cell that is the heart of the vehicle.

The fuel cell can be removed and used to power almost any other type of machine, according to the designers, “anything from a motorboat to a small domestic property.” The cell – or 'the Core', as it is called – is a 1kW generator, but the bike also features a 6kW battery pack for use during acceleration. The ENV is remarkably fuel efficient, functioning at an average rate of 100mpg – or roughly four hours riding on a full tank. The bike's frame and swing arm are entirely crafted from lightweight aluminum, and the bike is made even easier to handle by a simple throttle (in place of gears) and a finely balanced power-to-weight ratio.

As Seymourpowell's director, Nick Talbot, put it “The bike is usable, useful and great-looking. It was important on this project to demonstrate that new technologies don’t have to be wrapped up in a dull product.”

Intelligent Energy are currently working towards the production of cars and other multi-passenger vehicles based on the ENV’s design – but have also set their sights on the much larger project of distributing the fuel cell for use in remote or undeveloped parts of the world where electricity is less readily available.

David Birkenstock and the Future of Air Travel

As a major contributor of carbon emissions, the flight industry has begun to participate in serious research into new, fuel-efficient aircraft design, and much of the debate is centered on 'laminar flow'.

Laminar flow is the name given to the 'flow' of air that covers the surface of the aircraft. It is this 'blanket' of air that creates much of the craft's drag, or resistance, thus creating the need for more acceleration and more fuel. Laminar flow control describes the objective of various methods for reducing this drag and conserving energy.

David Birkenstock is an aircraft pilot who has taken this general idea and combined it with an idea for a more aerodynamic craft, seeking to lead a revolution in environmentally friendly air travel. His design essentially advocates the replacement of the usual tapered rear fuselage of the aircraft with a cone-shaped rear, and the integration of a 'pressure thrust' engine to override the thrust of the air resistance – in short, the thrust engine exploits the energy created by air motion and pressure and uses it to propel the aircraft forward. Birkenstock believes that the thrust engine would be sufficient to carry the aircraft at cruise speed, meaning that the main engines could essentially be running at 'idle' once this speed is achieved, for an estimated 20% savings in fuel consumption.

Birkenstock concedes that there is still a large amount of research required to support his theories, but they have still formed an important part of the contemporary eco-friendly aircraft design debate – and his insistence on the value of combining aerodynamics with thermodynamics for the conception of a twenty-first century aircraft could be just the inspiration the flight industry is looking for.

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