A new take on an old machine familiar to many northerners has taken home the top spot in this year’s Yukon Innovation Prize competition.
Stefan Weissenberg’s pitch for a hydrogen fuel cell-powered snowmobile earned him 2020’s grand prize of $10,000.
The annual competition is held by the Yukon government’s Department of Economic Development and Yukon College’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship hub, with this year’s theme centring on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
In an interview April 6, Weissenberg said the first sparks for his idea came when a friend in Destruction Bay gave him an old snowmobile that didn’t have a working motor but was otherwise in good condition.
Annoyed by the loud noise from snowmobiles and ATVs he hears in the Haines Pass while skiing, Weissenberg, who has a background in engineering and has worked with small drones, decided he would try to retrofit the old snowmobile so that it would run silently.
He said he initially considered installing a conventional battery-powered motor, but ultimately decided that a hydrogen fuel cell, which is how some drones are powered, would be a better choice.
In a nutshell, hydrogen fuel cells use a constant input of hydrogen (the fuel) and oxygen (typically just taken from the air) to generate electricity, creating water as a byproduct. This sets them apart from regular batteries, which typically use the metals and chemicals contained within their walls to generate power.
The technology isn’t new. Car manufacturers have long been prototyping hydrogen-fuelled vehicles, and some cities are already using them to power, in part, their municipal buses.
Hydrogen fuel cells also perform better in cold conditions than regular batteries, Weissenberg said, offering longer-lasting performance and are ‘incredibly reliable,” requiring “very little maintenance” as they have no moving parts.
“Because we’re in such a cold climate and have, like, long distances to travel and a lot of us use our vehicles quite regularly, (hydrogen fuel cells) are actually a better fit for that than batteries,” he said.
Lauren Manekin Beille, Yukon College’s manager of Innovation & Entrepreneurship, said Weissenberg’s idea stood out to the judges of the Innovation Prize because it seemed like one that Yukoners could not only relate to, but would also have a territory-wide impact.
“As an innovation, it goes across the territory, it has repercussions and effects all over the territory (with) the less noise that the machine produces and the less emissions,” she said in an interview April 6. “And the possibility that you could actually have one and use it in a remote community or in the centre of Whitehorse was really attractive, it could be something that we could sell locally and develop locally as well as something that could be taken across the nation.”
One of the main difficulties Weissenberg said he’s currently facing in getting his hydrogen-powered snowmobile prototype up and running is finding a supplier that will sell him the correct size of fuel cells for his application.
“The fuel-cell manufacturers either seem to be making them for drones at a very small power setting, like maybe two kilowatts, or they’re maybe making them for busses and they’re much larger, like 60 or 90 kilowatts or so, and those are pretty heavy,” he said, explaining that he’s looking for about 30 kilowatts.
“… I’m kind of trying to work with what’s out there right now and then get the prototype, show it to people, prove it works and then maybe we can talk about a custom design with one of the suppliers.”
There’s also a bit of psychology at play, with both the ideas of hydrogen as a fuel and a silent snowmobile perhaps unattractive, or even frightening, to the uninitiated.
“A lot of people don’t really understand hydrogen and when you first say the word hydrogen, they might think, ‘Oh my God, danger,’” Weissenberg acknowledged.
Many people also likely associate the noise a gasoline-powered snowmobile makes with power, a struggle that electric-vehicle manufacturers also face.
“I think it’s just a matter of time, it’s a matter of changing people’s mindsets that instead of, you know, thinking that noise has to correlate to power, you can have power without noise,” he said.
Weissenberg said he originally planned to begin the retrofit on his old snowmobile this summer, with the goal of having it up and running by fall. However, COVID-19 has meant he’s stuck in Whitehorse while his machine’s still in Destruction Bay, so he may have to settle for a different timeline and using a different snowmobile for his prototype.
He estimated that the prototype will cost approximately $80,000, in part because he’ll have to custom-order fuel cells, but expects the cost of future models to drop as he scales up production and as technology advances.
His goal, he said, is to eventually launch a retrofitting business where he and a team can convert any existing snowmobile to be hydrogen-powered, but he’s also hoping to prove a larger point — that hydrogen is both the clean and viable fuel of the future.
“It’s a lot bigger than just snowmobiles… (It’s also about) getting people to understand hydrogen and seeing all these massive benefits like reduction or elimination of diesel generators, you know, de-carbonizing trucking, these kinds of things will all open up once people kind of see this project,” he said. “So that’s my hope, it’s a lot bigger than just snowmobiles.”
Six other projects, including “Guide to Apples North of Sixty,” “Electric Jet Boat,” “No More Tiny Plastic Bottles” and “Battery Storage for the North” were awarded smaller prizes of $5,000 each. All seven winners will also receive “wrap-around” supports and services from the Innovation & Entrepreneurship hub.
Contact Jackie Hong at firstname.lastname@example.org