Extreme E tackles tough terrain, promotes sustainable racing

Formula E, the FIA-sanctioned electric racing series, has been a powerful ambassador for the EV revolution—and a damn fine sporting event—since its opening season in 2014. Now some of the same team behind Formula E, including Alejandro Agag, Chairman of Formula E and now CEO of Extreme E, have gone off-road and off the chain to bring us a much earthier, more rough-and-tumble racing series. Extreme E features custom electric off-road SUVs tearing through some of the harshest and most vehicle-punishing terrain on the globe. Formula E showed that EVs can be fast. Extreme E aims to show that EVs can be tough.

Sustainability is at the heart of Extreme E’s mission. The race sites have been chosen not only for their challenging physical features, but in order to highlight the environmental threats to each of the five unique ecosystems: desert, Arctic, ocean, rain forest and mountain glaciers. The carbon footprint is as small as practical: there are no spectators, and the cars and teams travel on a specially greened-up ship. Extreme E invests in local environmental projects at each site, and buys carbon offsets to compensate for what emissions it cannot avoid.

Equality is also a priority—each of the 9 racing teams consists of one male and one female driver, who take turns at the wheel of a single car.

Extreme E’s first race, the Desert X Prix, took place on April 3 and 4, on an 18 km course centered around three canyons in the vast desert surrounding Al-’Ula, Saudi Arabia. Rosberg X Racing duo Johan Kristoffersson and Molly Taylor took the checkered flag.

The all-terrain, all-electric Odyssey 21

Spark Racing Technology, which developed all three generations of the Formula E race car, created a custom electric SUV, the Odyssey 21, for Extreme E. Spark designed the chassis, bodywork, suspension, drivetrain architecture, software and electronics. The battery packs were made by Williams Advanced Engineering, and a few other components such as motors, inverters and braking systems were made by undisclosed companies.

Pierre Prunin, Head of Motorsport Operations for Spark Racing Technology, told Charged that the Odyssey 21 is “similar in terms of electrical and software technology,” to the Formula E racer, but that all the hardware components, unsurprisingly, are “bigger and stronger.” The Odyssey 21 has a niobium-reinforced steel alloy tubular frame, crash structure and roll cage. The exterior shell is made from sustainable natural flax fibers from a Swiss firm called Bcomp.

Each team can customize the bodywork of its car—for example, the Chip Ganassi Racing team created a car that features a unique grille, graphics and bodywork inspired by the GMC Hummer EV—but all the other parts are standardized.

There are two motors, each with 200 kW (225 hp) of power. Total torque is 450 Nm. The car goes from 0-62 mph in 4.5 seconds, and can handle gradients of up to 130 percent.

Unlike the Formula E racer, the Odyssey has no regenerative braking. “It is not an energy race, and braking isn’t huge due to poor grip in most of the conditions we’ll encounter, hence there’s very little energy to recover compared to Formula E,” Pierre Prunin told Charged

The battery pack, developed and built by Williams Advanced Engineering, is enclosed in a rugged enclosure of carbon fiber composite, which weighs less than 400 kg. The pack consists of 3,600 cells, runs at 800 volts, and has a capacity of 54 kWh (40 kWh usable).

Considering that the Extreme E races will take place in extreme temperatures, which are known to be hard on EV batteries, we were surprised to learn that the battery packs don’t use any active cooling while running. “This avoids the use of expensive and not environmentally friendly dielectric fluids, and also avoids potential leaks,” Mr. Prunin told us. “We cool down the batteries only while charging or before the race by blowing air into them. The front and rear motors are traditionally cooled with water.”

Mr. Prunin told me that Extreme E keeps “one spare car on hand in case of accidents, as well as a common spare pool in addition to the spare parts teams will be carrying.” After seeing a couple of spectacular crashes and breakdowns during the first race, I wonder if this will be sufficient.

Extreme E put the cars through a good two years of testing. Spark unveiled the Odyssey 21 for the first time in July 2019 at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Following that initial display run, tire provider Continental Tyres put the car and its bespoke rubber through a week-long testing program at the Château de Lastours proving ground in the south of France—a site regularly used by participants in the Dakar and FIA World Rally championships. Finally, the Odyssey 21 proved its mettle on the course at the 2020 Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia.

The green ship St. Helena

Transporting the cars and team members to the remote race locations overland or by air would be a complex and carbon-consuming logistical challenge, to say the least, so Extreme E decided to transport everything by ship. The St. Helena, named for its former role as a supply ship serving the remote island of the same name, is fitted with cargo cranes to unload the cars and other equipment, and has 62 cabins and a science lab on board. 

Extreme E has totally refurbished the 30-year-old vessel in order to lower its emissions as much as possible. Extreme E converted the engines and generators to run on low-sulfur marine diesel, redesigned the propellers to reduce friction, painted the underwater sections with a modern anti-fouling paint, replaced the 4,000 interior lights with high-efficiency LEDs, and upgraded the HVAC systems.

Extreme charging by AFC Energy

To put it mildly, Extreme E faces a number of challenges that most EV deployments don’t have to deal with. One of the problems is how to provide charging for the cars in remote locations far from the nearest electrical grid, and to do so in a sustainable way. Diesel generators would betray the goals of the electric series (some protestors have accused Formula E of hypocrisy because of the large number of fossil-fuel vehicles required to stage the races). Extreme E decided that the greenest and most practical solution would be an innovative system based on hydrogen fuel cells.

Extreme E decided that the greenest and most practical solution for charging the EVs would be an innovative system based on hydrogen fuel cells.

Charged spoke with Iain Thomson, Head of Communications and Stakeholder Management at AFC Energy, which developed the system. AFC Energy is named for its Alkaline Fuel Cell technology, which depends on the electrochemical combination of hydrogen and oxygen in a non-combustion process. Alkaline fuel cells offer a wider fuel tolerance than other types of fuel cell—AFC’s cells can use hydrogen generated from cracked ammonia, water electrolysis, industrial hydrogen streams or reformed biogas.

Iain Thomson explained that the principal difference between AFC’s alkaline fuel cells the PEM fuel cells used in vehicles is the ability to accept different types of hydrogen as a fuel source. “PEM fuel cells can only accommodate pure hydrogen sources, whereas we can take in ammonia as our feedstock. The fuel cell that we provided to Extreme E, that is actually running off green hydrogen, but in other situations, such as construction, it will run off ammonia. That requires an ammonia cracker with the system to draw the hydrogen and then start the reaction.”

AFC’s charging system, which is transported aboard the St. Helena and transferred to land at the site of each race, consists of four main components, each housed in shipping containers. “You’ve got the fuel production—the green hydrogen. Then you’ve got the alkaline fuel cell unit, a battery storage unit, and then the charger itself,” Thomson explains.

“In the days leading up to each of the race weekends, hydrogen is going to be generated from a combination of solar arrays powering electrolyzers. That hydrogen is then stored in cylinders, ready for use over the weekend. The fuel cell draws from that green hydrogen to create power, which is then fed into the battery storage unit. And the vehicle charger is linked to that battery storage unit, so when you see one of the Odyssey 21 vehicles charging on an Extreme E race weekend, it’s going to be drawing on power from that battery storage unit.”

“This is the first time that motorsport has used this type of technology to charge vehicles,” says Thomson. “You have Formula E and then Extreme E, so the technology has been developed for motorsport. We’d like to see this technology being deployed for other sports, to replace diesel generators, because that’s the principle aim of our technology at this stage—to do a like-for-like replacement of diesel technology so people can reduce their carbon emissions.”

We asked Thomson how incorporating hydrogen into the system adds value. Why not just use the solar arrays to charge the stationary batteries? His answer: “We were able to make assurances that our entire solution—hydrogen supply, a 40 kW cell, the associated battery energy storage system—could reliably provide the amount of charge each of the teams need for its vehicles over a race weekend, whilst providing the zero-emission, off-grid power that ties with the fundamental premise of the series to highlight key climate change issues.”  

Naturally, AFC and Extreme E did some pretty intense testing to make sure the system would work in the extreme conditions. Six months of collaborative engineering was followed by a month of intensive testing of the fuel cells, battery management systems and vehicle chargers. 

“Extreme E were at our Dunsfold headquarters, where they saw the entire system in action charging the vehicles,” says Thomson. “They were able to see it drawing from the charger, and then the use of the vehicle afterwards. So yeah, they had to obviously get their assurances prior to the system going onto the St. Helena. The big thing from Extreme E’s point of view was making sure that it could work in different climatic conditions. You’ve got ridiculous heat in some races and cold in others and you’re going to be working in Tierra del Fuego, at high altitude, so clearly, we have to factor those in as part of the design of the system.”

Naturally, plenty of backups and spare parts for the charging system will be on hand. “We’ve tried to make it as simple as possible,” Thomson says. “We have an asset light manufacturing strategy—a lot of our parts are outsourced. The containers themselves, what we call the balance of plant, we get that from a third party—BK Gulf, based in Dubai. They’ve got a huge level of backup parts. Similarly, electrodes within the system were jointly developed with De Nora, a massive Italian manufacturer. So we’ve got things at hand just in case if anything does go awry, but I think the key thing to stress is it’s been well-tested by Extreme E, and at each of the five races, we’ll have at least a couple of members of staff that are going to be making sure the technology works and that everything runs to program.”

Two big advantages of AFC’s system are scalability and portability, and the company is playing to those strengths by wooing customers in the mobility, construction and maritime industries. “We are going to be running a pilot program with Acciona, the Spanish construction giant, this summer, which is going to be a 160 kW fuel cell system fueled by ammonia to replace diesel generators on one of their construction sites,” said Thomson. “This is all part of Acciona’s policy to decarbonize its operations.”

“We are also going to be supplying a 100-kilowatt system to a German state organization called Forschungszentrum Juelich (Juelich Research Center). That’s for part of a low-carbon micro-grid.”

“Third, we signed a collaboration agreement with ABB in December—we’re going to be jointly developing products for the electric vehicle market in each of the 80 countries that ABB is currently working in. That relationship has just started, and the great thing about it is that we’re able to work with them to accelerate deployment of our products using the contacts and the markets they’re already working. So we’ve easily got two further power systems to leave Dunsfold [AFC headquarters] this year.”

Extreme E, which will be broadcast around the world, will obviously be a great showcase for AFC’s system. “I hope that the 200 million-plus people that potentially could watch the series, that they see the technology working, and they’ll gradually come to accept the sort of technology that we’re developing,” said Thomson.  

This article appeared in Charged Issue 54 – March/April 2021 – Subscribe now.