When a High-tech Israeli Arms Lab Tackles Your Local Bus Stop

After years of failing to find civilian applications for its military technology, Israeli defense firm could revolutionize public transportation.

Eyal Toueg

The tourists packing Jaffa Road in Jerusalem, sitting in the coffee shops and admiring the impressive architecture and buildings, would find it hard to believe that only a few years ago the street was one of the most drab, polluted and noisiest in the capital.

The exhaust from the buses using Jaffa Road as their main downtown thoroughfare dirtied the air and left the beautiful Jerusalem stone facades of the nearby buildings covered in soot. The honking horns and engine noise concealed the road's charms. But since the light-rail train arrived, the city center has undergone a metamorphosis. Jaffa Road is now closed to traffic and has received a new lease on life, along the long stretch leading from the Mahane Yehuda open-air market all the way to the walls of the Old City.

Only one thing still ruins the view: If you look up from your coffee cup you will see a jumble of electrical cables hanging over your head that supply the power to the trains. A small price to pay, you might say, for a street that resembles others throughout Europe, where such cables are a feature of urban scenery.

But thanks to Israeli technology, these unsightly cables could disappear from Jerusalem and European cities in the next few years. The innovation comes from Elbit Systems, which develops and manufacturers sophisticated weapons systems, communications equipment and command-and-control systems for the defense and homeland security markets. One example is the company's heads-up display invention, which allows a fighter pilot to see all the data he needs without looking down at his instruments and taking his eyes off the sky – or the enemy. Unmanned aerial vehicles are another big market for Elbit.

Missing opportunities

Unlike many of its competitors in Israel and abroad, Elbit has missed multiple opportunities in the past to find civilian uses for its military technology. But in recent years, developing new markets has become a critical focus for the company, especially as various Western nations are once again cutting back on military spending as governments slash budgets and the war in Afghanistan winds down.

Since he became Elbit’s CEO about a year ago, Bezhalel (Butzi) Machlis, has moved to diversify the company’s business and to reduce its dependence on defense spending. His goal: for 20% of Elbit’s revenues to come from civilian applications of its technology within five years.

Machlis began to turn things around with new technology designed to solve one of the most difficult problems in the realm of military electronics: providing a ready supply of energy in the battlefield. Military systems, such as laser cannons and satellite launchers, need a source of enormous amounts of energy that can be tapped quickly and allow discharge even more quickly. Until now, the main solution has been batteries. But batteries suffer severe limitations related to temperature, wear and tear, and response time.

A research team at Elbit thus came up with the idea of a super-capacitor that can charge various systems in the field and discharge large amounts of energy extremely rapidly. The company acquired early-stage technology for super-capacitors and started improving it. Within three years the energy and power unit in Elbit’s Land Systems division, headed by Erez Schreiber, developed a super-capacitor with a volume of just 26 cubic centimeters, which can provide a 10,000-ampere current. No other mobile power source of that size can offer a similar performance.

Such super-capacitors are used in military systems such as laser cannons and electromagnetic railguns – launchers that can fire projectiles at speeds of up to 9,000 kilometers an hour and hit a tank at a distance of 300 kilometers. It was clear from the outset that Elbit's technology also had great business potential because of its enormous number of civilian applications, such as providing power to start engines in extremely cold climates or to use in braking high-speed elevators in very tall buildings.

Despite those uses, Elbit decided to concentrate on the very rapidly growing area of public transportation. It seems that today’s hybrid engines are nearing their limits in terms of reducing pollution, including greenhouse gases, and also lowering fuel consumption.

The obvious alternative is to move to full electric power. The most common solution in Europe is the trolleybus or tram, powered via overhead electric cables – a technology that has been used since 1911, in Bradford and Leeds in Britain. It is both reliable and green, but it has a number of problems, chief among them the huge expense of laying the overhead cables, which run about a million euros per kilometer. They are also ugly.

Another solution is a bus that runs on batteries, but the latter are usually good for no more than 250 kilometers before they need to be recharged overnight at bus company garages. Moreover, these batteries are very vulnerable, whether to terrorists or criminals, and damage to their recharging infrastructure can paralyze the entire system.

Pilot program in works

Elbit’s super-capacitor technology could, however, bring about a real change: It could allow the buses or trams to be charged in just 30 seconds, a process that can be done even while picking up passengers at a stop, giving the bus or tram enough power to travel two kilometers before the next charge, about the distance between four bus stops.

In Tel Aviv, for example, the average bus route is 10 to 20 kilometers in length, so each vehicle would need to be recharged no more than five to 10 times a day. The technology could also, theoretically, allow buses to run 24 hours a day, without the necessity of attaching them to unsightly and costly cables. Moreover, smaller buses could run on narrower city streets where there is not enough space, or money, to lay cables; the buses could be operated by batteries when traveling through these streets and after a few stops rejoin the main line where they can recharge.

Elbit’s charging station uses electrical strips affixed to the roof of the bus stop, which are lowered and connected to an arm attached to the roof of the bus; the arm is extended when the vehicle arrives. The charging station itself can be hooked up directly to the regular electrical grid.

Elbit is now planning a pilot project to test the system on lines running between the Netanya industrial area and the Beit Yehoshua train station. Dubbed Electric Urban Public Transportation, the project is part of Israel’s nationwide effort to find alternative ways of powering public transportation; it involves creation of 10 charging stations, five on each side of the road.

Elbit has three partners in the endeavor: Solaris from Poland, which makes the electric vehicles; Germany’s Vossloh Kiepe, which manufactures various systems for electrically powered transportation, such as those which hook up electric buses to charging stations; and Israel’s Egged bus company, which will operate the routes.

The project still has not been approved and the proposal has still has not yet been finalized. If it wins official backing, Elbit's Schreiber expects the first bus to arrive in Israel before the end of the year, and the pilot program to run for two years. He predicts that it could become commercially viable by 2016.

A similar trial may also be conducted in Germany.

Elbit does not plan on manufacturing buses or operating bus lines, but still has some major technological hurdles facing it. The most important is to increase the capacity of the super-capacitor from 1.5-kilowatts per hour per kilogram to 20 kwH per kilo. But the real challenge down the line will be to produce the system at a price that is low enough to allow it to be installed all over the world.