Turning water into jobs. How eco-car fuels a city's hopes

With its space age design, light, nippy frame and pollution-free assurances, the hydrogen fuel-cell powered car may seem like a futuristic fantasy but today a deal was struck for the first major trial of these eco-friendly vehicles.

The city of Leicester became the first to make a giant leap into the unknown, signing an agreement to see 30 of the cars leased out to its citizens as well as the construction of refuelling points.

Designed by motor sport enthusiasts and built at Silverstone, the Riversimple hydrogen fuel-cell car is more of a runabout that a racer with a top speed of 50mph and a maximum distance of 200 miles on one tank.

However, the two-seater, which weighs a quarter of small average car at 350kg but has a tough carbon fibre body, emits only drops of water and is seen as a vital step in cutting emissions. Manufacturers insist the whole car is recyclable but acknowledge that to achieve true "zero emission" credentials the fuel must be produced from renewable energy sources.

"We need to harness cutting edge technology to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels if we are to tackle climate change," said Chris Huhne, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, adding: "Nowhere is this more important than with passenger cars, which are responsible for almost 60 per cent of domestic transport emissions.

"A radical transformation of our transport network is needed in the next 40 years and this is another great example of British innovation developing low carbon solutions to bring that about."

The deal signed today between Leicester City Council and Riversimple, a small Shropshire-based manufacturer, was for a 12-month pilot which will see 30 of the cars - which do the petrol-equivalent of 300 miles per gallon - rented out to private customers, businesses, car-share schemes and local government officials at a cost of £200 a month and 15p a mile.

Councillor Abdul Osman, in charge of regeneration and transport at Leicester City Council, said: "This hydrogen fuel-cell car is another example of revolutionary technology being used to meet future transport needs.

"This is yet another step in making Leicester a better place to live, and proposals to build the cars locally if the scheme proves successful could also mean a major jobs boost for the city."

The company insists if the trial starting in Spring 2012 is successful, it will consider building a factory in Leicester which would employ 250 people and manufacture 5,000 of the cars each year. It is understood that its executives are also in talks with other cities with Oxford a leading contender to start a similar pilot project.

The project is being backed by relatives of Ernst Piech, whose family founded Porche, but Riversimple is now looking for new investors to help finance this next phase. It hopes that by 2015 it will have manufactured a four-seater version of the car which can be used safely on motorways and for long journeys.

Hugo Spowers, the founder of Riversimple, said: "The age of fossil-fuelled cars may not be over yet but it is surely dying."

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