Hydrogen Cars: Hope for the Future

If there was ever a doubt that new solutions to vehicle emissions have to be found, they were dispelled this summer in Beijing. Over the past two months, the number of clear days could be counted on one hand.

However, blue skies could be on the way with the development of new, greener automotive technologies. In a week-long exhibition in Beijing in July, BMW displayed the company’s hydrogen-powered 7 Series sedan as part of its Clean Energy initiative. Engineers were flown in from the company’s research and development center in Munich to explain the inner workings of the engine, and guests were invited to take a test drive. A similar exhibition will be held later in the year in Guangzhou, and BMW will be back in Beijing in 2008 for the Olympics. With a fast-growing automotive industry and over two million cars in the capitol city alone, China and Beijing could do with cleaner burning cars.

The exhibition was held at Golden Port, an area near the Beijing airport which itself is further testimony to the growing car culture in China. On Golden Port’s sprawling grounds, dealerships for Chery and other local car companies stand side by side with those for BMW, Maserati and nearly every global automaker. China is now a market for low-priced cars as well as those in the highest-price luxury segments.

BMW and its Hydrogen Sedan

BMW developed its hydrogen vehicle in 2001. The 100 cars it has produced are leased on a selective basis to decision makers who can influence the development of a hydrogen infrastructure. BMW uses a conventional internal combustion engine, which burns both hydrogen and premium gasoline. (Until there are sufficient service areas where a car’s hydrogen supply can be refilled, the ability to burn ordinary gasoline is a must.) Hydrogen is stored in liquid form in the car at very low temperatures, and then converted to a gas when used by the vehicle. Once the car is up and running, the driver can easily switch back and forth between hydrogen and gasoline as the fuel.

The 260-horsepower engine does not lack power. Speeds of up to 240 kilometers per hour can be reached, and the car goes from zero to 100km/hr in nine seconds. It’s certainly not the fastest on record, but also not the slowest. The car drives smoothly, and it is difficult to tell whether it is running on gasoline or hydrogen.

Pros and Cons of Hydrogen

The biggest advantage of the hydrogen car is environmental, and it is perhaps the ultimate answer to greenhouse gases, global warming and the world’s finite supply of oil. If separated from water via electrolysis, hydrogen is a renewable energy source, but it can also be produced from fossil fuels. Particulates, NOx, hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide which are emitted from gasoline and diesel engines are not produced by hydrogen-powered engines.

The biggest disadvantage of the hydrogen car is its cost— the initial price tag, the cost of the hydrogen, and the huge investment it would take to create a hydrogen infrastructure. Since the cars are not being made in production quantities, it is difficult to estimate their ultimate cost, but it is safe to say that they would be substantially more expensive than cars using petroleum. Infrastructure demands are considerable. Investment is required for the infrastructure to transport and store hydrogen fuel, as well as additional capacity for electrical generation. In a true hydrogen economy, the electricity required for the electrolysis of water would be generated from renewable sources such as nuclear power plants, hydroelectric dams, solar cells or wind turbines.

Where Do We Go From Here?

BMW has proven that it can make a perfectly functional hydrogen car. Large companies like Linde and Air Products know how to produce the gas. With scale production and a larger demand for the fuel, the cost of the car as well as the cost of producing the hydrogen should come down. If a sufficient infrastructure is in place, the redundant, gasoline burning capability can be eliminated, reducing costs further. If the engines and cars are made in China, costs can be reduced even further.

In a world where petroleum has been the primary energy source for transportation, hydrogen faces the classic “chicken or egg” problem. BMW has taken the first step by investing in the research and development and producing 100 cars which demonstrate hydrogen’s functional feasibility. It will now take someone to take the next by sponsoring at least the beginnings of a hydrogen infrastructure.

There is no shortage of parties which can benefit by playing a role. China as a country is one. It is already heavily dependent on imported oil and is in the midst of industrializing. In doing so, it can either replicate the petroleum infrastructures found in the West, or go off in a new, more sustainable direction. With growing populations of both people and cars, China’s large cities may be prime candidates to play a part. All are struggling with the air pollution caused by more cars. Short of oil reserves, China’s national oil companies may be interested in taking the lead in the development of the world’s next new energy source. Lured by the fortunes which can be made backing the right, new technology, there are plenty of companies and financial investors who would be willing to invest side by side in all parts of the chain.

The Chinese government and its telecommunications industry cooperated with foreign companies and enabled the country to go from no phones to cell phones in a decade. Because it did not have to be concerned with making an existing land line system obsolete, China was free to create a cell phone infrastructure which rivals any in the world. Why not do the same in autos and skip right to the latest technology? All it may take is a little push to get everyone involved.

Despite hydrogen’s present cost disadvantages and the infrastructure dilemma, it is encouraging to know that technological solutions are out there—we just need to get them into an affordable price range. That might be China’s ultimate contribution to solving the world’s environmental problems. No country in the world has more to gain from the development of new, affordable solutions to global problems such as air pollution, and no country has more to lose if they can’t be found.

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