Could hydrogen be the fuel of the future?
MUNICH, Germany (CNN) -- No more smelly fumes at the gas station. No more polluting C02 emissions. Far less dependence on uneven supplies of fossil fuels. Could hydrogen, the simplest and most abundant element in the universe, address both energy and clean air concerns?
BMW is committing a lot of engineering resources to find an answer to that question. But hydrogen's possibilities also pose a sort of "chicken and egg" quandary for the company.
How can they get consumers to buy hydrogen fueled cars if drivers can't find fuel? And how do they get energy companies committed to building hydrogen service stations if few people own these cars?
BMW isn't putting all its eggs in one basket. The German auto giant is working with governments, oil companies, and transportation researchers to promote the long-term benefits of cars that use this pollution-free fuel.
The company is demonstrating its hydrogen-powered vehicles during a global road show, "The Clean Energy World Tour 2001," that kicked off in Dubai in February. By mid-year BMW will also give demonstrations in Brussels, Belgium; Milan, Italy; Tokyo, Japan; and Los Angeles, California.
'It feels like a normal car'
Alternative fueled vehicles often conjure up visions of heavy and clunky electric cars, a good idea that's just "not quite there yet." And certainly not the image of speed and performance BMW cultivates. So it was important to BMW that their hydrogen vehicle look like their other products.
"It feels like a normal car. It can be operated like a normal car. And so the feeling for our customers will be, they have a high powered car, a normal car with clean emissions," said Klaus Pehr, head of concept cars for BMW in Munich.
Speaking at the first -- and only -- public, robotically operated hydrogen fueling station located at the Munich Airport, Pehr showed off the 750hL sedan: one of the bivalent 5.4 liter, 12-cylinder V -engine, with a 140 liter hydrogen tank. Its maximum speed is 140 miles per hour (226 km/hour).
Crucial for the foreseeable future, the cars can run on either liquefied hydrogen or gasoline.
BMW has 15 of the 750hL sedans participating in its Clean Energy road show. Combined, the cars have traveled more than 63,000 miles, (100,000 kilometers). But with just one place to "fill up," hydrogen cars are now practical only in and around Bavaria, near the Munich filling station.
Right now, the car's range is limiting: just 217.5 miles (350 km).
The hydrogen sedans are not on the market yet, but BMW is already considering ways to broaden their sales possibilities. One of the company's goals is a hydrogen filling station in every European capital by 2005.
Years of promoting mass transit have not ended love affairs with the car in any industrialized country. So the mindset now in some transportation circles and smoggy city governments is to at least get drivers into low- or non-polluting vehicles.
"I won't argue about whether this will happen in 30 years, 40 years, or 50 years ... but it WILL happen," says Professor Ulrich Wagner of Munich's Ludwig Maximilian University.
Wagner says car and energy companies, as well as local and national governments, must work on a common path to make hydrogen-fueled cars a reality.
"We need better storage systems, more efficient storage systems, and we need a certain infrastructure in order to get started," said Wagner, who teaches courses on renewable energy.
While hydrogen is the lightest element, it has some tricky characteristics. It only becomes liquid at dramatically low temperatures -- -423 degrees Fahrenheit (-253 degrees Celsius). To keep the fuel that cold, fuel tanks in the BMW cars are made of 70 layers of fiberglass and aluminum.
Hydrogen fuel is now created through an electrolysis process. Electrodes are stimulated by light, which split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen.
What about safety?
Safety issues are a major concern for a fuel that's often perceived as more dangerous than others. While hydrogen itself played no part in either catastrophe, it was the fuel in both the Hindenburg and the Challenger.
Wagner says consumers should not fear a hydrogen-powered vehicle.
"Of course there is some risk, but it is comparable to the risk we have with conventional automotive fuels," he said.
BMW conducted numerous crash tests to see what would happen if the hydrogen tank was punctured or damaged. Their engineers report the liquid hydrogen dissipated harmlessly into the air.
What, if anything, will provide a kick-start for hydrogen or other alternative fuels? It could be economic, with the cost of gasoline now topping $4 a gallon in much of Europe. Or it could be political, like California's tough emissions standards. Or, in clogged cities that already have serious smog problems, health issues could tip the scale toward developing cleaner energy sooner, rather than later.
"You start with fleet and other specialized applications, like airport buses, or transporting VIP's," says Jim Ohi, a hydrogen expert at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado. "In the U.S. there are also federal programs, clean city programs, that mandate alternative vehicles for part of government fleets."
Ohi says there's a reason "oil companies" are now referring to themselves as "energy companies: "They're feeling the pressure to study zero-emission fuels, even if it may be decades before they make any money with it.""We have problems with our C02 emissions concerning the climate," says BMW's Pehr. "Especially with big cities. Look at Mexico City (Mexico), Athens (Greece), or Los Angeles (California). We can solve these problems just by a new energy carrier in the future."
A few pilot projects using hydrogen fuel exist in the United States. Several are in California, where residents are more in tune with energy alternatives such as solar and wind power for electricity generation. And because of recent rolling blackouts and enormous increases in electric costs, perhaps more open to looking beyond current technology.
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