Italian researchers die in hybrid car experiment

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Two Italian researchers working on an EU-funded project to convert old combustion engine cars into solar-powered hybrids have died after a prototype vehicle exploded during a test drive.

Maria Vittoria Prati, 66, a prominent scholar at Italy’s National Research Council (CNR), and Fulvio Filace, 25, an engineering student, were carrying out road tests on a prototype developed by Life-Save, a green transportation project that has been funded by the EU.

The project, born out of research carried out by engineers at the University of Salerno, was seeking to develop a kit that could be brought to market to allow vehicle owners to retrofit their old cars and convert them into solar-powered hybrids.

The idea of a solar-powered electric vehicle — or solar hybrids — has captured the imagination of researchers and entrepreneurs around the world but has yet to prove technologically or commercially viable.

Still, between 2017 and the start of this year, the Italian Life-Save project had received about €1.8mn from the EU’s Life program, an environment and climate fund dedicated to supporting clean tech start-ups, according to the fund’s database.

The explosion of one of Life-Save’s prototypes, a modified Volkswagen Polo, took place during a test drive in the southern Italian city of Naples last Friday, severely burning the two researchers.

Prati, who was described as a “brilliant researcher” and an “authority in the study of emissions and the use of alternative fuels”, succumbed to her injuries on Monday, according to a statement by the CNR.

Her younger colleague, a research apprentice, died overnight, the council confirmed on Thursday.

The council said it launched its own internal investigation “to reconstruct the causes of the grave event” and was also co-operating with a police investigation launched to determine the causes of the accident.

“The loss of two lives in such dramatic circumstances profoundly hits the scientific community in every part of Italy,” the council statement said.

The Life-Save project was attempting to develop technology that would provide vehicle owners with an affordable means of transforming old cars to less polluting vehicles, without having to shoulder the full cost of purchasing new hybrid cars, according to the database and project materials.

The original research for the idea was conducted at the University of Salerno by a team lead by professor Gianfranco Rizzo and was initially funded by Italy’s ministry of education.

The scientists subsequently patented their technology, and moved into a company, called eProInn. The firm teamed up with Italian solar panel manufacturer Solbian and several Italian automotive component manufacturers to develop the prototype.

Since the accident, Life-Save has suspended its website as it pays homage to the two engineers who died. A European Commission spokesman said officials had no immediate comment.

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