Like in the last years, nanoFlowcell garnered a lot of attention at this year’s International Motor Show in Geneva, Switzerland. Like in the last years, there are big announcements, but little to back them up. The 2016 headlines: The QUANTiNO had successfully completed a 14-hour test drive indoors, the car’s range would soon increase to 1,000 kilometers, and a “Quant City” should be created in Switzerland. Given that there is little evidence to support these claims, it seems to confirm people’s suspicions that the announcements are primarily part of a marketing campaign and that none of the projects will be realized in the near future.
In February 2016, the QUANTiNO became street legal. Almost two years before that – in July 2014 – the Quant E had been given a permit for test drives on public roads (see HZwei issue from July 2014). The fundamental difference between the recent model and its predecessors is that the new car is a so-called low-voltage vehicle with 48 volts, while its predecessors were high-voltage cars. Of course, the start-up again used the opportunity to speak of a “world premiere.”
NanoFlowcell, which has its legal domicile in Vaduz, Liechtenstein’s capital, said that the QUANTiNO was celebrating its premiere as “the world’s first low-voltage electric vehicle with road license.” Last year, it had still been presented as a concept study of a small-size sports car. This February, the company was issued a permit from the SGS-TÜV Saar to test the vehicle on public roads. When talking to H2-international, Torsten Laub from SGS Germany confirmed that the Type Approval department of SGS-TÜV Saar had conducted “an assessment for allowing an exception to normal permit rules for a single test vehicle. This assessment mainly focused on basic equipment and general safety-relevant features.” The NDA between nanoFlowcell and the test institute bars Laub from adding anything further.
The electric sports car is said to offer an output of 80 kW distributed onto four electric motors, accelerating the car to 100 kph in less than five seconds. By nanoFlowcell’s own account, this engine enables “entirely new mileage figures” of the 2+2 seater with all-wheel drive (length: 3.91 meters, weight: 1,420 kilograms, top speed: 200 kph). It announced that “the QUANTiNO was designed specifically for daily use, housing a smaller engine that consumes less power but offers a greater range” than the Quant E. This means that the new model was “the first electric car suited even for long and frequent car trips.”
A press release went on to say: “The low-voltage system in the QUANTiNO works with the nanoFlowcell® drive to form an exceptionally efficient symbiosis that promises a significantly greater potential range compared with the HV systems commonly used in electric vehicles. Furthermore, it eliminates the danger of electric shocks that can be caused by a high-voltage system in the event of an accident or when undertaking repair work to HV components.”
New Quant FE presentation
This year‘s Geneva successor to the Quant E and the Quant F is the Quant FE, by the company’s own account, “a thoroughbred sports car with a coupé-ish 2+2 design whose nanoFlowcell® powertrain aligns perfectly with its sporty DNA. The 801 kW (1090 HPmetric) in its veins accelerates this electric street racer from 0 to 100 km/h (approx. 62.5 mph) in a fleeting 2.8 seconds.” What’s more, “the energy needed for this kind of oomph is produced by the onboard power plant in a sustainable and toxicologically completely harmless process.” The “E” in the name is short for “Evolution” and should point to the “advanced state of development of the vehicle to near-series maturity.” Both the Quant FE and the QUANTiNO basically allow for a small batch production with modular components. Whether this will come to pass is said to be decided this year, depending on the outcome of a feasibility study.
Uninterrupted 14-hour drive
A first, longer test run was done in mid-February 2016 on a track near Zurich Airport. Spokesperson Ralf C. Kaiser from Hill+Knowlton Strategies told H2-international, that this test drive “primarily focused on the longevity of the nanoFlowcell.” The alleged simulations included driving through the city or at 70 kph through the countryside, although the ad video only showed an around 200-meter long indoor track in a factory hall. Kaiser said that lawyer Willi Luchs from Zurich’s Luchs & Partner was present on-site during refills and tank sealing, and supervised the entire test run. When talking to H2-international, Luchs confirmed that “the QUANTiNO was driven non-stop and without any refill or recharge.” He added: “I was there the whole time when the car made its record drive over 14 hours.”
However, the test had to be halted after those 14 hours, not because the energy had been drained from the vehicle but from the driver, Nunzio La Vecchia, who had shown serious fatigue. After his arrival, the car had used up only “around half of” the two energy storage units, which hold 159 liters each. On March 2, 2016, the company released further details – or more to the point, revised their previous statement by saying that the car had consumed only 22% of the stored “fuel.” The energy consumption was said to be “12 to 14 kWh per 100 kilometers.” But details about the miles driven or the average speed were not part of Ralf Kaiser’s explanation: “That’s still a secret.” Nevertheless, nanoFlowcell announced: “Under normal driving conditions, the QUANTiNO can cover a theoretical range of more than 1,000 kilometers on a single tank. Precise range figures will be determined during test driving to be conducted on European roads in 2016.” Further tests are said to follow in the first quarter of 2016 before there is a decision on a small batch production.
Even if there are few details at the moment, the 14-hour test revealed some information about the car.
Tank volume: 2 x 159 L
Fuel consumption: 22% = around 70 L
Energy demand: 13 kWh per 100 km
Energy density: 600 Wh per liter or kilogram
This results in:
Energy consumption (test run): 70 L x 600 Wh / L = 42 kWh
Range: 42 kWh / (13 kWh / 100 km) = around 320 km
Average speed: 320 km / 14 h = around 23 kph
A full tank would actually increase the range at this average speed to above 1,400 kilometers.
The Quant E is to have a tank of two times 200 liters, meaning the car can store a total of 120 kWh, but only consumes around 20 kWh per 100 kilometers. It was also said that it would be relatively easy to increase tank volume to as much as 800 liters. “Likewise, filling up the QUANTiNO with ionic liquid involves a process similar to that for a petrol-powered vehicle – with a hose and a refueling nozzle. […] The ionic liquid, which is harmless to the environment and to health, is also cost-effective to produce.”
In a January 2014 interview found on the company’s website, La Vecchia said: “The power density of the nanoFlowcell® at 600 W [editor’s note: he probably meant to say “Wh”] per kilogram or per liter is greater than any comparable system; five times greater, to be specific. That means you can drive five times further with our system than you can with a conventional battery system, including the most state-of-the-art lithium-ion batteries.” The news piece also said: “In addition, flow cells can go through 10,000 charging cycles with no noticeable memory effect and suffer almost no self-discharging.”
There is no way to back up these claims at present, since there is no way to replicate the results. Peter Fischer, Group Leader Redox Flow Batteries at the Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technology (ICT) told H2-international: “The energy density of most redox flow batteries is too low for transport solutions. The most promising systems for use in vehicles are metal-solution/air- or metal-ion/air battery packs, as these systems could possibly create the highest energy densities of all units available. But few of these types of batteries have made it into research publications, and most of the ones published in the literature would not be suitable to power a car.”
Fischer also told Christiane Brünglinghaus, who reported about nanoFlowcell for Springer Professional, in March 2015: “Nowadays, conventional flow batteries based on vanadium sulfate theoretically achieve energy densities of up to 19 to 38 Wh/L with respect to pure electrolyte solutions.” Bromine-based systems would theoretically achieve energy densities of 570 Wh/kg (e.g., zinc-bromine), Fischer went on to explain, but the actual energy density was far lower – maybe 70 Wh/kg. Fischer said about the solution‘s alleged low toxicity: “However, most battery-electrolyte solutions are classified as environmentally harmful, since they typically consist of metal salts dissolved in acids or bases.”
Professor Robin Vanhaelst from the Institute of Vehicle Technology (IFBW) of the Ostfalia University of Applied Sciences in Wolfsburg, Germany, had already voiced his profound skepticism in 2014 when talking to Technology Review (“absolutely utopian”). The current news have not changed his opinion. In an interview with H2-international, he explained that “Redox Flow batteries suffer from very, very low energy density.” The energy density was proportional to the membrane surface area, and the latter was strictly limited in vehicles. This meant that “in today’s world, redox flow cells are not an attractive option, as not one of these cells reaches the levels of lithium-ion ones.” In his view, this also included stationary use: “There’s a pitch-black picture to be painted here.”
Vanhaelst’s comments are an indirect call on La Vecchia to finally present sensible scientific documentation that at least analyzed one individual cell, as everything so far had been “pretty incredulous.” But he did confirm that the energy density figures stated by nanoFlowcell would constitute a “quantum leap forward compared to lithium-ion technology.” He also raised the possibility of fast-charging electrolyte liquids if the above-mentioned properties were factually true, so that the liquid wouldn’t have to be replaced but could be charged within a few minutes.
The Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental, Safety and Energy Technology, in contrast, will no longer publish any statement about the topic because of its on-going legal dispute with nanoFlowcell. Meanwhile, La Vecchia himself is busy touting his ownership of several patents – which is, in fact, true. Besides patents on solar technology from 1998 and 1999, he has also held one on a car-shaped “computer mouse, particularly a laser mouse” (EP 2 211 254 A1) since 2009.
Hard to believe
Quite a bizarre find was the video of a user who goes by the name of “macartus.” The video shows La Vecchia driving through Zurich in a bright yellow QUANTiNO. When he stops at a traffic light, a group of about ten kids run across the street to take one photo after another of the sports car. Without exception, they all use compact or reflex cameras – no cell phones. Hard to believe that so many teenage boys in Switzerland carry around such big equipment, isn’t it?
Many company addresses, many open questions
Besides many open questions about technical details, there are also doubts as to who is behind the start-up. For example, Didi Prolovski reported last March on www.mycar.net that there was no factory hall at the initial company address in Schaan, but only the law firm Müller & Partner, of which Roland Müller is a partner. Then, it was said that the company’s headquarters had moved to Landstrasse 97, a building that houses only the Laurentius Pharmacy Schaan as well as empty office spaces. When asked by H2-international, the real estate management of the property replied in short that both nanoFlowcell and La Vecchia were “unknown” to them.
After Müller left nanoFlowcell, La Vecchia has been representing the company together with Hektor Albert Bertschi since January 2016. Bertschi owns a one-man energy consultancy in Kilchberg and has had a stake in nanoResearch since October 2015, ever since La Vecchia sold his shares of the company. The publicly traded entity based in Lugano in Swiss Tessin is dedicated to “research, development, and the search for opportunities to discover and use new materials, processes and technologies, with a special interest in people with low environmental impact.” But whoever expects a research institute at Via San Lorenzo 15 will be disappointed when he sees the entirely ordinary multi-family building located at that address.
On Nov. 11, 2014, the company was still based in Zug and had the name NLV Solar. That was the time when Giorgio Ramis Leone Grandini joined the company and became chair of the supervisory board. The reputation of the notary is somewhat tarnished, however, by online statements such as the following: “Giorgio Ramis Leone Grandini has not been the (co-)founder of any business since 1995, has filed for bankruptcy with 4 companies, and has had 15 enterprises removed from the registry or liquidated.”
Reading through the company history of nanoFlowcell will also reveal the opening of the Juno DigiLab Virtual Reality Centre in Zurich-Riesbach in 2001 and its name change to nanoFlowcell DigiLab in 2013. The company address of Juno Technology Products at Seefeldstrasse 301 turns out to be, if at all, an office of Juno DigiLab in the backyard of the building – adjacent to an advertising agency – but not a laboratory. This is seemingly at odds with nanoFlowcell’s description of La Vecchia being the man “behind the design and development of the innovative engine technology in the nanoFlowcell DigiLab in Zurich.”
Just recently on Feb. 22, 2016, Juno Technology Products – which had been renamed to Quant World in 2012 and is managed jointly by La Vecchia and Grandini – moved to Zug. To contact the company, one must take the indirect route through “c/o MSG Services GmbH, Bahnhofstrasse 10, 6302 Zug.”
In December 2014, it was also announced that there were “over 100 R&D professionals” driving the market readiness of the Quant E “just around the corner from the development center of one of Germany’s premium sports car manufacturers” in Weissach in the German state of Baden-Württemberg. At the same time, news broke that the publicly traded company established a German subsidiary called nanoProduction, based in Waldshut-Tiengen, also in Baden-Württemberg. The primary goal of the organization located at Im Wallgraben 48 was to gain approval as a new carmaker with an international World Manufacturer Identifier, in order to pave the way for mass production. Together with its two directors, Bertschi and La Vecchia, the nanoProduction subsidiary was also given the task of establishing the manufacturing division of the nanoFlowcell group, including negotiations with suppliers and development partners. But even here, the address stated was only a Postbank branch office, with no nanoProduction in sight. The question that comes to mind is whether the company consists of anonymously used office spaces or just PO boxes.
Who is behind nanoFlowcell?
So far, H2-international has not been able to determine who is actually running the publicly traded company. The lack of information concerns both statements about the size of the company and its financial strength. For example, it has yet to be established how La Vecchia was able to pay for his prototype design, his marketing campaigns and his exhibitions at trade shows, and who owns a stake in the company or who funds it. The only thing Ralf Kaiser told H2-international was that “more than EUR 100 million” had been invested in the business.
Fiction or reality?
The question what this lack of information means is not least important in light of the claim that the municipal administration of Tenero-Contra had already signaled its interest in the allegedly planned Quant City. There, in the Tessin region, is where a press release said the nanoFlowcell DigiLab would move to. According to nanoFlowcell, “a state-of-the-art research and development center“ was planned to be built on an area of 25,000 m2, including a Quant Academy, which was said to merge the R&D areas of the company group and enable scientific work on flow cell technologies as well as ionic liquids. Construction was scheduled to start at the beginning of 2016 to create 150 to 200 new engineering, research and lawyer jobs in 2018 – but only if the contract for the purchase of the plot was signed. The company went on to say: “We’re in preparation for our Quant City planning. The negotiations about the construction site, however, are ongoing.” The operator was given as nanoResearch, a wholly owned subsidiary of nanoFlowcell.
A nanoFlowcell press release quoted the municipal council of Tenero as saying: “In addition, in June we looked into the plans to set up a production and research facility in Tenero for Quant vehicles. In keeping with the approved planning, the municipal council in Tenero supports unreservedly this development on the site of the former paper factory.” H2-international, however, has so far not been able to independently verify this statement, as no Tenero council member has replied to our request for information.
Admittedly, there is a chance that the redox flow technology could achieve a greater range than massive and heavy lithium-ion batteries because large-size liquid storage also enables longer trips, even if the energy density is lower. For instance, Volker Pulskamp-Böcking, the former spokesperson of nanoFlowcell explained in an interview with Die Welt in summer 2014: “There is enough hollow space for a bigger tank size.” But high range is not everything: It’s also about energy density, and there are crucial details missing in that regard.
So it remains doubtful whether there has actually been a technological breakthrough or if these are only bits and pieces to create just as much marketing buzz needed in spite of the fact that there’s nothing really new to report.
As long as nanoFlowcell seems unwilling to have its ideas subjected to an independent and thorough analysis, there is (too) much room for speculation.
Figure sources: nanoFlowcell