An Electric Car Heads to Le Mans Next Year
Many people in Europe think the 24 Hours of Le Mans is the world's greatest automotive race. Nobody can argue that it's one of the most fascinating. The race's record is 3,360 miles. That was Mike Rockenfeller, Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas driving an Audi diesel. They stopped about 30 times to refill and change tires, but they spent most of those 24 hours driving as hard as they can, achieving an average speed over 140 mph. That's amazing. Yet there will something even more incredible next year—something never seen before: an attempt to complete the race in an all-electric car.
It simply sounds impossible. Electric cars don't have a high top speed or a long range, but a small French-Swiss team lead by Jean-François Weber and Christophe Schwartz decided they were up to the challenge. Their company, Green GT, is not new to electric car racing. Those guys built the race version of the Citroen Survolt concept car two years ago. But racing in Le Mans will be much more difficult.
The car will need much more power, and much more energy aboard. So the first thing is muscle, and that's where they started, by designing powerful electric motors. The engineer chose to use two of them, each making 200 kW. So that's 400 kW total, with a monstrous 2,950 lb-ft of torque at the rear wheels. The car will not be very fast though. Top speed should be only around 185 miles per hour, whereas the fastest cars in Le Mans can do more than 220 mph.
A far more complicated issue is energy storage. Internal combustion cars refill in less than one minute, and recharging batteries was totally out of the question in such a short time. Every minute spent at the pit is lost time. Swappable batteries were more of a solution, but there was still an issue with energy density and weight. Each lap at Le Mans is done at more than 145 mph, with some time at top speed in the Hunaudières straight. Driving at that kind of speed requires a huge lot of energy, and it would not be smart to carry on board a huge battery when most cars at Le Mans weigh less than one ton. Nobody wants the electric car to be left behind all the gas cars, so Green GT ditched the battery idea and went for a fuel cell instead. The small company designed its own 400-kW fuel cells system. With hydrogen being so light, the quantity of energy stored aboard is equivalent to 264 kWh. A battery this size with the best lithium-ion cells would weigh more than two tons.
The complete car now weighs about 2,700 pounds, and Green GT expects to reduce it to about 2,200 pounds by race time. Hydrogen consumption should be about 28 pounds an hour, so the car should refill 36 times during the race. That's if everything goes according to plan, but many things and specifications might change in the next six months. Green GT has been working on the project for more than 18 months, and besides the technical work, we should also congratulate the Automobile Club de l'Ouest, which organizes the race, for allowing an electric car running on hydrogen to take part. Not long ago, nobody thought it would be possible to have an EV at Le Mans. But in 2013, it will be real.
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