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BMW Heads Back to the Future

Technology * The German firm believes the venerable internal-combustion engine can be retooled to meet 21st century goals.

July 04, 2001|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bayerische Motoren Werke of Germany is bringing its hydrogen bombs to Southern California next week--a fleet of 7-Series luxury sedans with V-12 engines altered to burn liquid hydrogen instead of gasoline.

The rest of the world's major auto makers are racing to be first to market with a fuel-cell car: an electric vehicle whose juice is produced on board in a process that converts hydrogen to electricity.

But BMW stands alone in its belief that blending nonpolluting hydrogen fuel and the technology of the internal-combustion engine is the rational way to go about the search for a clean car that people will buy.

It is an approach, the company argues, that combines the futuristic with the familiar and, by greatly reducing development costs and time, could speed the day when autos no longer pose a serious threat to the environment.

The dozen vehicles that BMW will unveil July 12 in Los Angeles--before sending two of them up the highway to the company's new North American engineering center in Oxnard for long-term testing--are part of a fleet of 15 hydrogen cars the company has built and operated in Germany during the last two years.

"We are bringing them here because California is on the cutting edge of automotive environmental initiatives," said David Buchko, a spokesman for BMW of North America. "It just makes sense to evaluate them in real conditions in the one part of the world where a lot of the work is going on" in the hunt for cleaner cars.

"We also want to make people aware of them, and aware that an internal-combustion engine fueled directly by hydrogen is a viable alternative" to other clean-car systems, he said.

One sign that more testing is needed: BMW so far has been getting about 200 miles per 37-gallon canister of hydrogen, or 5.4 miles per gallon, versus 450 to 500 miles on a 25-gallon tank of premium gasoline, or 18 to 20 mpg.

Visually, once the fancy graphics of the hydrogen models are stripped away, there is no apparent difference between the BMW 750hL model--"h" for hydrogen--and its gasoline-powered stablemate, the 750iL.

But there are distinct performance differences beyond fuel economy, notably in acceleration.

For one thing, a hydrogen-fueled internal-combustion engine produces only about two-thirds the power of a conventional gasoline engine. Using BMW's largest-displacement engine, the V-12, gives the big sedan the same oomph under hydrogen power as if it were a 7-Series sedan using a gasoline-fired V-8.

And unlike fuel-cell vehicles that use electric power, a hydrogen burner cannot achieve zero-emission status, because traces of carbon monoxide are produced when engine lubricants are vaporized and nitrogen oxides are emitted as a product of any combustion process.

But the engine's basic byproducts are distilled water and steam, and proponents at BMW argue that the hydrogen car is far cleaner than any gasoline car.

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The 740hL models are set up as dual-fuel vehicles, capable of shifting between hydrogen and gasoline--a feature, Buchko says, that would help make them marketable even before hydrogen becomes as readily available as gasoline.

BMW has been touring its hydrogen fleet for most of the last year, with stops thus far in Berlin; Brussels; Milan, Italy; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and Tokyo.

After being shown off at a clean-air news conference in Los Angeles next week--the only U.S. stop on the tour--most of the fleet will return to Germany, where BMW uses the cars in demonstration projects, including ferrying visitors between the Munich airport and the company's corporate headquarters there.

The two cars staying behind at BMW's Oxnard engineering center will undergo six months of testing in city, desert and mountain conditions, Buchko said.

And because the liquid hydrogen fuel must be stored at temperatures of minus-425 degrees and would instantly turn a human hand into a frozen finger-sicle if touched, BMW built a million-dollar robotic fueling station and cryogenic hydrogen storage facility at the Oxnard site--one of only five hydrogen filling stations in the world.

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Times staff writer John O'Dell covers the auto industry for Highway 1 and the Business section. He can be reached at john.odell@latimes.com.

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