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Monday, Dec. 4, 2006

BMW's hydrogen statement

The Hydrogen 7 bridges the gap with gasoline, but will it catch on? A report from Berlin

Staff writer

It was a sunny day in Berlin in November when this reporter anxiously got into BMW's newest car for a test drive. Which was appropriate, as the fuel inside the star was basically the same one running the car.

BMW had invited about 350 journalists from around the world over a two-week period to try out the Hydrogen 7, one of the only dual-drive cars in the world that burns liquid hydrogen.

Writers were flown in on business class, chauffeured to and from the airport and booked in luxurious hotels for a costly effort to spotlight BMW's bold addition to its flagship 7 Series, but it was also an impressive display of the elite automaker's determination to draw attention from hybrid, diesel and biofuel cars and promote hydrogen vehicle technology instead.

Basically a BMW 760Li refitted with a hydrogen tank, the Hydrogen 7 is unique in that it runs seamlessly on both liquid hydrogen and gasoline. BMW plans to lease 100 of the cars worldwide to politicians, athletes, celebrities and other influential figures to promote the shift to hydrogen starting next March.

It wasn't clear whether the campaign would succeed in getting the ball rolling on hydrogen, but the luxury car is a technological marvel and drives, looks and sounds just like its gasoline-only counterpart.

The case for hydrogen

To reduce vehicle emissions linked to global warming, BMW has been tinkering with pristine hydrogen in an industry obsessed with diesel, biofuel and gasoline-electric hybrids.

Klaus Scheurer, a representative of BMW's Board for Traffic and Environment, said the company believes hydrogen is the answer to fossil fuels' problems -- namely finite supply and greenhouse gas emissions.

"Hydrogen by contrast, is the most common element in our universe," Scheurer said. "We can use primary sources of energy to recover hydrogen, which is why it offers such a great potential from the perspective of sustainability."

And the fact that it can be produced from and emits only water as a byproduct makes it the most environment-friendly option, he said.

Unlike fuel-cell cars, which run on electricity produced by chemical reactions, the Hydrogen 7 is powered by an internal combustion engine, which BMW said provides the same driving pleasure as a conventional automobile.

After listening to a half-day lecture about the car in the morning, it was time to take a test drive.

To the autobahn

At around 1:30 p.m., two Japanese journalists and a BWM engineer jumped into a Hydrogen 7 painted in Blue Water Metallic to put the luxury sedan through its paces, starting with a tour of the city.

The dashboard is equipped with digital fuel gauges for both hydrogen and gasoline, depending on the mode you're in. A simple push of the button tells you how much fuel has been consumed per 100 km.

Another button on the steering wheel let us switch simply from gasoline mode to hydrogen.

After leaving the city to cruise the surrounding countryside, I discovered the engine was slightly louder on hydrogen, but most drivers probably wouldn't notice. I doubt the cows grazing in the fields did.

What is far easier to notice is the dearth of luggage space caused by the two big fuel tanks in back.

The 220-kg hydrogen tank makes for one cool car. It's essentially a big thermos insulated with a vacuum to keep the hydrogen chilled at minus 253 degrees. Once it gets above that temperature, the hydrogen starts boiling into a gas and is automatically released into the atmosphere. Listen carefully, and you can hear the valve in the roof click open to release the gas.

But if you leave the car parked for more than 17 hours, the liquefied fuel will boil off and vaporize into thin air, leaving your tank half empty in about nine days.

During the test drive, the engineer offered to show us Japanese autobahn neophytes just how fast the Hydrogen 7 can really go.

After swapping seats, he took the car back up to 160 kph, accelerated to 200 and -- after getting the slowpokes out of the way -- to 220 kph as we reporters, obviously unaccustomed to speeds over 100 kph, sank into our seats and broke into a cold sweat. The car is electronically limited to a top speed of 230 kph.

After a few hours' driving in both fuel modes, however, the display showed the car had consumed 22.7 liters of gasoline per 100 km. Too bad we were out of hydrogen.

Trip to the gas station

As I drove into the filling station (an ordinary gas station but with hydrogen pumps), I parked next to a mobile hydrogen station, which was basically a truck loaded with hydrogen tanks.

I cut the engine, pushed a button to pop the cover for the hydrogen tank and got out to fill 'er up.

The circular fuel port was situated on the right rear pillar -- just above and forward of the gasoline port. But the filling hose was big, heavy and unwieldy.

Fortunately, there was another hose with guide wires attached that was easier to lift.

Refueling with hydrogen didn't seem to take any more time than refueling with gasoline.

Fuel of the future?

One thing that came to mind while watching windmills whiz by on the autobahn was the risk of having a catastrophic accident in a hydrogen car.

During the test drive, the BMW engineer admitted that the most crucial point in developing the car was making sure the hydrogen wouldn't mix with air, which could lead to an explosion.

This would likely happen in a situation where leaking gasoline catches fire and ignites the hydrogen, setting off a powerful explosion.

Rigorous tests conducted by BMW and an independent third party, however, show the tank won't explode even if enveloped by 1,000-degree flames for more than 70 minutes. This is because the hydrogen escapes "slowly and imperceptibly" through safety valves as the pressure rises, BMW said.

The tank has also been put through collision, gunshot and vacuum-breach tests.

But BMW will have to conquer more than safety issues if hydrogen is to go mainstream.

One of those is infrastructure. Access to a hydrogen stations is a must if the cars are to spread. In Japan, there are only a dozen and just one that handles liquid hydrogen. Establishing a nationwide network would likely be daunting without government participation.

Another issue is ease of use. While the car itself gets high marks, the awkward fuel hose may pose difficulties for female and elderly drivers. And the multiple hydrogen sensors may make people feel uneasy as well.

Despite the widespread image that "green" cars are less powerful than gasoline-powered ones, our test drive proved the Hydrogen 7 can give any other car in its class a run for the money, and with most of the frills and thrills drivers expect from BMW.

As the reporters returned to their hotels, however, they may have had mixed feelings about the prospects for BMW's bold proposal for emissions-free driving.

Scheurer acknowledged the concerns and said the Hydrogen 7, marvelous as it is, is still a work in progress.

"It is only the first step," he said.

We welcome your opinions. Click to send a message to the editor.

The Japan Times

Article 1 of 2 in Business news


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