Hydrogen Cars Are Almost Here, But...

There are still serious problems to solve, such as: Where will drivers fuel up?

At the January auto show in Los Angeles, U.S. car enthusiasts got their first look at the H2R, a race car from BMW. Building it took just 10 months, but the race it's designed to win will last for the next 10 years and beyond. It's the race to stem pollution from vehicles that burn gasoline and diesel fuels.

The H2R runs on hydrogen, the gas that lights the sun. All carmakers are scrambling to harness this clean fuel, driven by long-term worries about oil supplies as well as environmental harm. Washington and other governments share the concerns.

When it comes to hydrogen vehicles, most car companies are counting on little under-the-hood chemical refineries known as fuel cells. Trouble is, a fuel-cell system powerful enough for a car would add roughly $100,000 to sticker prices today. And then there's an even tougher problem: Where would drivers get the fuel? Fewer than 100 filling stations in the whole world now pump hydrogen. So it could be a couple of decades before fuel-cell cars become popular enough to make a dent either in pollution or in petroleum consumption.

BMW is taking a shortcut that addresses these issues, at least in part. Its H2R race car has an ordinary internal-combustion engine -- but it burns hydrogen. It's basically the same engine used in the carmaker's 760i luxury sedans. Running on hydrogen, it develops 286 horsepower and propels the H2R from from zero to 60 mph in under six seconds. And the car hit 187 mph last September at the Miramas racetrack in France. "The message we wanted to send is that you can have fun driving and be environmentally conscious at the same time," says Tom Purves, CEO of BMW of North America LLC.

As for the dearth of hydrogen filling stations, that ceases to be quite as big a problem. The same BMW engine can run on either hydrogen or gasoline, so simply adding a second fuel system can create a bi-fuel car. For daily trips around town, you would burn hydrogen to minimize urban pollution, says Anton Reisinger, manager of BMW's hydrogen program. "But out on the motorway, you could punch a button and run on gasoline." If a trip on hydrogen goes beyond that fuel's 215-mile range, he adds, the car would automatically switch over to gasoline, giving you up to 500 more miles.

The downside to burning hydrogen in a combustion engine is that it produces some pollution -- a small amount of nitrogen oxides (NOx). Fuel cells, on the other hand, spew out nothing more noxious than water. But BMW asserts that its out-the-tailpipe NOx levels will be well below even California's strict Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle standard.

Another consideration is that BMW bi-fuel cars will use liquid hydrogen, which must be kept very cold, below -423F. The car's onboard cryogenic system takes care of this automatically. But if the vehicle isn't started up for three or four days, says Reisinger, the liquid will begin to boil, and hydrogen gas will escape through a vent. That, however, sounds like a bigger worry than it actually is. Despite persistent myths, hydrogen is less dangerous than gasoline. It disperses quickly, so even when a container leaks explosions are next to impossible.

When will zippy bi-fuel BMW 7 Series sedans show up at dealers? It's not a sure bet, but BMW CEO Helmut Panke says he plans to put small numbers of them on the road, probably in Europe, within three years. A U.S. launch is more likely to happen around 2010.

By then, there could be multiple hydrogen filling stations serving major cities. The German government is sponsoring development of filling stations with their own hydrogen generators. That way, the lack of hydrogen pipelines and delivery trucks won't hold back the early transition away from gasoline and diesel to hydrogen cars -- and to the ultimate goal of pollution-free fuel cells.

The hydrogen comes from a familiar resource: water. Here's how it works. Water molecules are split into their hydrogen and oxygen constituents by electrolysis, or by shocking them with an electric current. Then, after the hydrogen makes a trip through a fuel cell, it recombines with oxygen in the air and reverts back to water. Refueling stations with electrolyzers have been built in Berlin, Hamburg, and Munich. And others have been installed as part of the Clean Urban Transport for Europe program in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Reykjavik, and Stockholm.

Hydrogen filling stations are also getting sprinkled across the U.S. Last April, the Energy Dept. said it would spend $190 million over five years if industry chipped in a similar sum to build hydrogen-and-gasoline stations and other infrastructure projects. Results weren't long in coming. In November, Shell Oil Co. (RD ) and General Motors Corp. (GM ) cut the ribbon on a new hydrogen station in Washington. It's just the first of a string of stations between the capital and New York, says outgoing Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham.

In California, Energy has awarded a contract for the construction of two dozen stations to a team led by Air Products & Chemicals Inc. (APD ) The company has already built 30 hydrogen stations around the globe and is the No. 1 producer of hydrogen. (The fertilizer and chemical industries consume millions of tons of the gas each year.)

Not to be upstaged, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger last spring called for a "hydrogen highway network" by 2010. He envisions at least 150 fuel stops at regular intervals along major highways. The California Fuel Cell Partnership, composed mainly of transportation agencies and carmakers, has so far built 13 hydrogen stations, and the group has more on the drawing board.


Some of the upcoming fuel stations may also have water-electrolysis systems. However, while that technology makes sense in Europe, where gasoline is twice as expensive, it's not so attractive in the U.S. Electrolysis takes a lot of electricity. It costs at least $2.50 to produce a kilogram of hydrogen, which contains the same amount of energy as a gallon of gasoline. But the next generation of wind turbines and solar cells could supply cheaper electricity and make electrolysis more feasible for certain areas of the U.S.. Germany is already experimenting with wind-powered electrolysis at filling stations. Energy's goal for hydrogen from water is $2 per kilogram by 2010.

In the U.S. heartland, biomass is the long-term ticket. This refers to leftover crop plants plus lumber and logging waste. Coaxing biomass to give up its hydrogen now costs more than $3 a kilogram. But researchers expect to shrink that to $2.60 around 2010. A few years later, hydrogen could compete with gasoline.

Total up all the potentials, and the U.S. has more than enough domestic resources to supply the energy it needs to replace all automotive fossil fuels with hydrogen -- using renewable resources only. So it would no longer be necessary to extract hydrogen from finite supplies of natural gas, which is the source of 90% of hydrogen today.

Once hydrogen is bountiful, says Raymond Freymann, BMW's managing director of research and technology, "we can go to a mono-fuel engine and not only extend the range [of the vehicle] but also improve the performance." So the H2R's 187 mph and 6-second acceleration may be just the start. But it seems like a good beginning.

By Otis Port in New York

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