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Monday, Dec. 4, 2006

Doubts hamper hydrogen's spread


Staff writer

Despite the BMW Group's assurance that it has taken every precaution and covered the worst-case scenarios, many people still doubt the wisdom of using highly flammable hydrogen as a fuel.

BMW claims hydrogen offers a clear advantage over gasoline because it is 15 times lighter than air and disperses quickly instead of forming hazardous puddles on the ground like gasoline does.

But the extensive safety measures BMW has taken with the Hydrogen 7 only seem to prove how sensitively it has to be handled.

For instance, red LED indicators on the Hydrogen 7 door-lock buttons will flash if sensors detect a hydrogen leak in the car.

And drivers aren't allowed to park it in closed-in spaces to avoid the chance that the hydrogen might escape, accumulate and ignite.

Kenichiro Ota, professor of engineering at Yokohama National University, said that the most important thing is for people to have knowledge of a substance so they can handle it properly, whether it be hydrogen or gasoline.

"I wouldn't say hydrogen is safe," Ota said. "But I can't say hydrogen is more dangerous than gasoline because it differs on what one needs to be careful of."

To date, Mazda Motor Corp. is the only other company that makes cars with hydrogen combustion engines. Its five cars run on compressed hydrogen and are being leased to Hiroshima and Yamaguchi prefectures and gas firm Iwatani International Corp. and oil refiner Idemitsu Kosan Co.

Critics claim hydrogen is not a practical solution to oil as it has to be made from other energy sources, such as electricity or natural gas.

Though abundant in the universe, hydrogen, whether in gas or liquid form, must be produced either by electrolyzing water or by exploiting various gases that release carbon dioxide in the process, said Ulf Bossel, president of European Fuel Cell Forum, a Switzerland-based think tank.

"Both energy sources can be used directly, which is much better than to convert it to hydrogen," said Bossel, an expert on alternative energy. "There is no future in hydrogen economy."

Bossel said electric cars are the best option for environment-friendly vehicles because of their high efficiency. About 90 percent of the electricity made by power plants can be put to use, he said.

The majority of carmakers are focusing neither on hydrogen nor electric technologies, but somewhere in between.

As of the end of October, Toyota Motor Corp., the world leader in hybrid cars, and Honda Motor Co. had sold nearly a million hybrid cars worldwide since Toyota's Prius debuted in 1997. The two automakers now offer about 13 hybrid models at home and abroad.

According to an estimate by Nomura Research Institute, about 2.19 million hybrid cars will be sold annually in 2012, of which 1.68 million will be sold in the United States. The market for hybrid auto parts is expected to expand to 760 billion yen in 2012, NRI said.

The newcomer in the market for "green" vehicles is the biofuel car. Biofuel is ethanol made from corn, sugar cane or other crops. Politicians from farming states are backing biofuels enthusiastically, especially in the U.S. and Brazil, where drivers must use fuel containing 25 percent biofuel.

In Europe, meanwhile, diesels still account for half the cars sold in the region and are poised to gain further ground.

But Ota of Yokohama National University noted that building energy infrastructure involves a huge amount of investment, and that it would be a waste for the government to commit to several energy sources one after another.

"I think the ultimate fuel should be free of carbon dioxide emissions," he said. "If hydrogen is the answer, it is better to prepare sooner than later."



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