In making sci-fi epic 'Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets', director Luc Besson has created a whole new world. For one team of engineers, that didn’t just mean designing new kinds of spacecraft but also considering how they might be powered. Here, we talk to one of the engineers who collaborated on the SKYJET, a single-seat pursuit craft that features a new and out-of-this-world fuel technology
Luc Besson and the Valerian creative and design team imagined the SKYJET, a single-seat pursuit craft that features in the sci-fi epic Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. As Lexus came on board to collaborate on some of the final elements, they couldn’t focus solely on vehicle aesthetics. They also had to consider what kind of energy system might propel the vehicle through the galaxy, and how that system might realistically function.
“The starting point of our idea was the fact that conventional cars, whether they have a combustion engine or pure electric drive like the ones we have today, all require some kind of fueling or charging station,” says Takeaki Kato, Chief Engineer at Lexus International and a key collaborator, along with Ben Mauro, Concept Designer on the movie, and Besson himself, to incorporating imaginative technologies into the final iteration of the SKYJET. “But can you imagine having to find a refueling station that’s thousands of miles or even thousands of light years away each time you need to fill up your vehicle? How much simpler would transporting this fuel be if it were condensed in compact form?”
Asking questions like these – no matter how abstract they might seem – is part of Kato’s role at Lexus. He leads a team of passionate engineers who are charged with imagining a better future for mobility, and much of their work centers on considering ways in which we might be free from restrictions that are in place today. So when they began to think about the potential challenges posed by the necessity of SKYJET refuelling stations, well, it was an issue they’d already been considering in the real world, along with other topics, such as the issue of there being limited fossil fuel resources, and the importance of clean energy being available more efficiently.
When Besson and Mauro shared their design for the SKYJET, Kato and his team were in a position to apply much of their existing thinking to these new challenges they faced. “One idea we discussed was a system to harness easily renewable, dense energy into a cartridge that can be recharged at home. And this would be placed inside the SKYJET to power its propulsion. We thought this could be a real possibility in the 28th century. It eliminates the need to develop an entire infrastructure to transport and sell fuel, such as resorting to pipelines and fueling stations in space.”
In the early stages of the project, Besson had proposed to use fuel-cell technology to power the SKYJET. Kato and his team liked the idea. Fuel-cell technology allows for a clean-energy source that removes the need for conventional fossil-fuel systems. It can also be stored in easy-to-manage packages – perfect for home charging. “Fuel cells work by bringing together hydrogen and oxygen, whose chemical reaction creates electricity,” says Kato. “The byproduct is water, so it’s a completely clean form of energy. Perhaps in the future, instead of hydrogen, we can use tachyon particles or anti-matter from black holes. The idea behind the SKYJET was to use naturally present elements in the universe.”
Out of necessity, these ideas appear futuristic – Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is set in the 28th century, after all. But the team’s concepts are grounded in contemporary engineering. Lexus already has credible history in fuel-cell technology. The Lexus LF-FC, a concept car unveiled at the 2015 Tokyo Motor Show, premiered a high-output fuel-cell power system built to help distribute torque to all four wheels. (The results? Better handling, exceptional road stability, and, most importantly, reduced dependence on traditional fuel.) It was this technology the team thought that the SKYJET could use a similar system.
“That the SKYJET is powered by a form of fuel-cell system means that it does have roots in technology that exists today,” says Kato. It’s hard to say just how realistic the craft’s technology is, given that the film is set 700 years in the future and its environment hypothetical. “But to say that the SKYJET is totally unrealistic would also be wrong.”
So will we see these ideas in real life – particularly in a Lexus car – in the near future? Will the dream for a better, clean-energy future come to pass? Kato is positive. “We’re working hard to create an oil-dependence-free future,” he says. “Our vision and hope as engineers is to create a totally clean and effective form of propulsion to power our vehicles.” That would be a yes, then.