Gelsenkirchen, Germany (dpa) - Riding a bicycle without pedalling is a dream of many people. A German company is hoping to make this reality.
Just a few hundred metres from Gelsenkirchen's football stadium, Masterflex AG is working on a new mode of transportation: fuel-cell powered bicycles and three-wheeled "cargo bikes."
"We're the world leaders in our field," says Stefan Schulte, the company's product manager. "Technologically, we're about a year or two ahead of the competition."
The project has drawn inquiries from China and several European countries. Testing of the first fuel-cell powered bicycle fleet is set to begin in a Ruhr region town in early 2006.
Since 2003 a fuel cell developed by Masterflex has been tested for use in the new superjumbo jet Airbus A380. Hydrogen-based fuel-cell technology, which has already found applications in space flight and submarine propulsion systems, is seen as an environmentally friendly energy of the future.
Scientists around the world are trying to develop fuel-cell products for wide use, and Masterflex is at the forefront.
The basic principle underlying the fuel cell was discovered more than 160 years ago. In a controlled electrochemical reaction, hydrogen is converted into electricity and heat. A byproduct is water. There are no pollutants.
For some time now, big companies have been doing research on the use of fuel cells in automobiles and power plants, among other things. Masterflex, a small company, has concentrated on small, portable fuel cells. And bicycles seemed to be an ideal application.
Schulte says the company has placed particular importance on ensuring that the bikes look sporty, and ha finally settled on Swiss manufacturer Swizzbee.
"We intend to make the fuel cell a bicycle component that is as natural as the seat or bell," he says.
With fuel-cell powered bicycles priced at several thousand euros (dollars), executives are seen as potential customers.
"It's still considered 'uncool' in the Ruhr region for a chief executive office to ride a bicycle to work," says Schulte. "But we aim to change that."
Fuel-cell motors, which allow a nearly effortless ride at a brisk pace of more than 25 kilometres per hour, may yet convince businesspeople to leave their cars at home.
To sit - and not sweat - is a selling point. No one need fear going into a conference with unsightly underarm sweat stains. And thanks to new technology, a fuel-cell powered bicycle's range, depending on the model, could reach 120 to 250 kilometres, which is many times farther than standard electric bicycles can now travel without recharging.
There are other target groups besides the dark-suit-and-tie crowd. Masterflex envisages tourists rolling through the Ruhr region on the company's newfangled bicycles. Parents could use them to take their children to kindergarten or school, and delivery services to bring their wares to customers.
There are plans to put them into action as advertising vehicles during the World Cup. Outfitted with giant replicas of lemonade bottles, for example, they will wend their way through the centres of host cities and around the stadiums.
Masterflex has done well on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, with investors from places like the United States, Britain, France, Austria and the Netherlands showing particular interest in shares.
"About 60 per cent of our shareholders are from abroad," says company spokesman Stephanie Kniep. Apart from fuel cells, the main business activities of Masterflex, which has annual sales of 76 million euros (91 million dollars), are high-tech hose systems and medical technology.