It can be a challenge to get out into nature when the snow lies deep. Sure, you can get around on skis for fun and exercise, but if your job involves inspecting power lines, keeping ski lifts operating, combing the mountains in rescue operations or tracking down herds of reindeer, you need a robust and reliable snowmobile. The first modern track-driven personal snow scooter was invented in the late 1950s by the Canadian Joseph-Armand Bombardier, who called it the Ski-Doo Snowmobile.
The vehicle could carry one or two persons, with the driver sitting atop a rubber track and steering with front-mounted skis, basic design that remains unchanged today. With their high power-to-weight ratio, snowmobiles have good acceleration and excellent maneuverability in soft snow.
Snowmobiles are widely used these days by workers who need winter off-road transportation, but they’ve also found an important niche among recreational users. A wide variety of configurations are available to meet various performance requirements, ranging from working vehicles to advanced sports scooters. There are more than 450,000 snowmobiles registered in Scandinavia, fully one-third of which are found the snowy expanses of northern Sweden.
Most engines used in snowmobiles are conventional two-stroke or four-stroke designs, while some models are equipped with Wankel rotary engines. For many years, the power output relative to size and weight of two-stroke engines meant that they dominated the market. Recently, however, four-stroke engines have gained ground because of their lower exhaust emissions and fuel consumption.
Today’s snowmobiles impact the environment in several ways, not least from air pollution emissions. Studies estimate that nearly 30 percent of the total emissions of hydrocarbons in three northern Swedish provinces come from snowmobiles. Another environmental problem is noise, perhaps not a health threat but clearly an irritant for skiers and hikers in the pristine mountain scenery.
A powerful electric motor
The market for an environmentally friendly snow vehicle looks set to open up. Many ski resorts promote themselves as environmentally aware to increase attractiveness to tourists. In several places resort operators have switched entirely to non-fossil-fuel vehicles. For example, in the Swiss towns of Zermatt and Saas-Fee visitors park their cars at the city limits and all transportation within the resort is by electric vehicle. But it’s more difficult to find snow groomers and snowmobiles that run on anything but gasoline.
Introducing Sweden’s AB Elmacchina, whose mission is to promote sustainable development in the winter landscape.The company has developed the world’s first prototype for an electric snowmobile.
Advanced electronics and batteries
In collaboration with the Vehicle Technical Centre in Östersund, a cluster of companies in the automotive industry, Elmacchina has developed a technical solution to convert snowmobiles using a combination of electric motors, batteries and motor control. The first prototype was developed in cooperation with companies and researchers well-versed in advanced vehicle technology, and it employs the latest advances in electronics and batteries.
“This is a unique product, but it’s as natural as the electric cars that are coming onto the market. I believe we’ve got the timing just right, as demand for environmentally sound snow vehicles is certain to increase,” says Pontus Sandell, CEO of Elmacchina. “Perhaps the most important feature is that our scooter is virtually silent. It’s also free from fumes, odors, oil and climate-changing carbon dioxide. Elmacchina can’t yet compete with gasoline-powered snowmobiles in terms of range and power, but performance is improving.”
The first version of the electric snowmobile was presented in the spring of 2010 and a second prototype is under development. The minimum target for performance is a range of 60 km and a top speed of 80 km/h. The electric motor package delivers 70 bhp, or approximately 50 kW, and the scooter features high-performance batteries with a capacity of about 12 kWh. The batteries can be recharged in four hours with a standard 230 volt outlet, while a 380 volt power supply cuts charging time to about one hour. The lifetime of the battery pack is up to 2000 charges. The entire package, including power train, batteries, control and display of operational data, weighs about 100 kg. Since the conversion package replaces the gasoline engine, exhaust system and gas tank, the overall weight is about the same as a standard snowmobile.
Elmacchina will be expensive to buy but inexpensive to operate. The company’s plan is to lease the scooters, working together with interested parties to develop the product. Elmacchina expects to produce the first series of electric snow scooters in 2011, and will focus on markets where the environmental arguments carry the most weight, such as ski resorts, field service and outdoor events.
Article published in March 2011