BMW Hydrogen’s Fuel Quest

by : Matthew C. Keegan

German automaker BMW is on a quest, one that may likely make them the first automaker in the world to produce a fleet of vehicles capable of running on hydrogen fuel. That’s right, BMW is leading the way and if all goes as promised the first hydrogen cell powered production BMW will hit the streets in 2008.

Back around 2000, General Motors announced that they would work toward building a fleet of vehicles that could run on hydrogen power. When that announcement was made few thought that hydrogen technology could be successfully tapped and used in a car. However, if it was to come about, most people thought that it would take at least 20 years to come to pass.

In 2004 BMW announced that they, too, would bring hydrogen powered cars into production. But, the automaker said that they would accomplish this feat much sooner – by 2008! As it stands today it looks as if BMW may be well on the road to meeting their lofty goal as automotive blogs are currently commenting on recently surfaced photographs showing what appears to be a hydrogen powered BMW. Specifically, a V12 powered BMW 7 Series has been spotted being tested in Germany and it was learned that this particular test car also had a working alternate fuel source available, namely hydrogen.

Several things still need to occur before hydrogen fuel cells are a readily accepted and available alternative to the internal combustion engine. These include:

  • The cost of developing hydrogen fuel cells.
    Currently, the price of fuel cells is prohibitive but technological advancements are lowering that cost. When the cost drops below that of outfitting a vehicle with an engine, than hydrogen fuel cells will become a viable alternative.
  • Production and storage concerns. Currently, significant amount of fossil fuels must be used to develop hydrogen cells. In addition, storing hydrogen can be a problem and transmitting the fuel through existing natural gas lines doesn’t look possible given the fuel’s negative interaction with steel. Hydrogen proponents are calling on the U.S. government to authorize “Manhattan Project" type funding to create an all new distribution system across the country. Speculation on the cost of implementing a hydrogen infrastructure is in the hundreds of billions of dollars, perhaps well over one trillion dollars.

Should the day come when hydrogen powered vehicles are produced and some sort of distribution system is created, two big benefits will emerge: American dependency on foreign oil will evaporate and greenhouse gas emissions will drop considerably. These two reasons alone may be enough for BMW, General Motors, and other automakers to continue with hydrogen fuel cell development. Will the government step in to help out? That remains to be seen.