Just this week a Russian mogul, Mikhail Prokorhov, showed off the design of an all-Russian gas-electric hybrid car, the Yo. It’s an unfortunate name in English (it’s the letter ‘e’ in Russian), but they’re claiming 67 mpg and $14,500 when it goes on sale in 18 months.
Well! Unlike the conservative Soviet-era engineering on the Soyuz spacecraft, they look to be going for a high-risk, high-reward kind of design. There are a lot of radical new features here:
- It’s a genuine serial hybrid – the gas engine only drives electric generators, not the wheels directly. This lets the engine run at an optimum RPM all the time, and avoids transmissions and the weight and expense of a drive train. The car only weighs 1500 pounds! Both the Prius and Volt are parallel hybrids, where the engine and electric motors can drive the wheels together. The up side of serial systems is efficiency (and that’s why it’s used in current locomotives), and the down side is a lack of sustained high power for long hills.
- It uses ultra-capacitors for electrical storage instead of chemical batteries. These have lots of advantages: extremely high peak currents, unlimited number of charge-discharge cycles, and no loss in cold weather (a particular concern in Moscow!). Their disadvantages are: half the energy density of batteries, and a decline in output voltage as they discharge. They’re ideal for regenerative braking, though, which doesn’t need much storage and has high currents and lots of cycles.
- It uses a new gas engine design, a “rotary vane engine”, also known as a swing-piston engine. The design was pioneered by one Otto Lutz during WW II, but has not otherwise seen production. The principle is to have two pistons moving freely within a ring-shaped chamber. One stands still while the other catches up to it and compresses the gas between them. That’s then ignited and the first piston is pushed away. The pistons stop and start, but that can be turned into a smooth rotary motion without a crankshaft. It’s not a Wankel, but it does have the Wankel’s advantages of high power per weight, simple construction, and low vibration. A very slick video of it is here:
Prokorhov made his fortune by acquiring a major nickel mining company, Norilsk Nickel, during those glory days of perestroika in the early 90s, when the Galtian supermen of Ayn Rand’s homeland seized control of the nation’s assets from socialists. Most of them turned out to be gangsters, unsurprisingly, but Prokorhov seems to have actually improved the operations of the company, and built it into a major supplier. He was also smart enough to sell it in 2007, just before the Russian stock market crashed in the Great Recession. Since then he’s bought into gold, and has acquired the New Jersey Nets basketball team. Diversification!
He doesn’t have a technical background, which may be why he doesn’t know better than to try to innovate in too many ways at once. There are a lot of failure points in this design, and the schedule is tight. Here is a Russian piece on the car, which concludes with typical gloom that the failure of this venture will doom all other startups in Russia.
Still, he gets big whuffie for at least trying. Like Elon Musk with his Tesla Roadster and SpaceX rockets, he’s putting his ill-gotten gains to good technical use. Best of luck to him!