Ramblings for June 12, 2000

June 12, 2000

BMW’s hydrogen future

Many manufacturers are working to free drivers from dependence on gasoline, and they’re being spurred on by the recent flock of artificial ‘shortages’ that have driven up prices.

Hydrogen seems like a perfect solution, since it burns without pollution and is the most abundant element in the universe. Unfortunately, it does not exist in a form that’s ready to use. Remarkably, it takes more energy to convert, transport, store and deliver a comparable amount of hydrogen than it takes to drill wells, ship oil halfway around the world, perform all the messy refining, and deliver gasoline to our vehicles.

But with many more applications for hydrogen being developed each month, it won’t be long before an infrastructure exists that will start making hydrogen fuel cost-effective. Most hydrogen applications have been based on fuel-cell technology that cleanly converts hydrogen to electricity. But in order to make this available in volume, a completely new manufacturing industry would have to be developed, with new tooling and factories.

Several car companies have done extensive research on hydrogen-fueled internal combustion including Mazda, but BMW is by far the most active. Since the end of the seventies, BMW has been experimenting with hydrogen. Five generations of hydrogen cars have hit the road, each based on the BMW 7-Series of the time.

This time around, a fleet of BMW 750hL ("h" instead of "i") luxury sedans is being used as shuttles during EXPO 2000 in Hanover. These vehicles are built on the same production line as normal production 7-Series. Even without catalytic converters, the BMW hydrogen engines operate almost entirely without emissions. Running on hydrogen, the 12-cylinder engine delivers 204 horsepower and has a range of over 200 miles. The 750hL also features a conventional fuel supply in the case hydrogen fuel is not available.

The only difference in the engine is in the intake duct with additional hydrogen injection valves. The hydrogen is stored in super-chilled liquid form in a double-walled steel tank. Even in massive collision tests, the steel cylinder with its double two-millimeter thick walls did not leak.

A prerequisite for the introduction of hydrogen as fuel is a filling system that must be no more complicated than filling a car today. The low temperature of minus-250 degrees Celsius requires special technology. BMW has developed a fully automatic hydrogen fueling system that is currently being used at the Munich airport. It takes less than three minutes and is a simple process.

Hydrogen can only be a sensible alternative when the electricity needed for separating it from water can be produced with renewable energy. According to Dr. Burkhard Göschel, BMW Group Development Director, "Our vision is to have a network of hydrogen fuel stations all over Europe by the year 2010." The prices for the cars and for the fuel are to be similar to those of conventional cars and fuels.

Bright Beetles

If you see a soft blue or bright yellow New Beetle on the road, you are witnessing a revolution in car merchandising. These limited edition new colors will be sold exclusively via the Web. Volkswagen's online buying process allows customers to configure a desired car, check its availability, pick a dealer, consider financing and terms, and finally,

arrange delivery. Said Liz Vanzura, Volkswagen's Marketing Director, "For consumers, this ultimately gives them more control of the buying process. For our dealers, this gets them ready for the new wave of online shopping." Volkswagen has begun issuing a limited number of trading cards, featuring photos of the Vapor Blue and Reflex Yellow New Beetles, to the people who purchase cars and to a few early prospects on the www.vw.com Web site.


Bob welcomes comments or questions at bstorck@sprynet.com.

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