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BMW Fuels Race to Sell Hydrogen-Powered Cars

July 18, 2001|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BMW of Germany said it will move beyond prototypes and have a hydrogen-powered version of its 7-Series luxury sedan available for retail sales by the end of the decade.

The company, which announced its plans in Los Angeles last week, joins U.S. auto makers Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. in the race to put hydrogen-powered cars in dealer showrooms. Both have said they will have models available in the retail market by 2010.

Although other major auto makers are working toward the same goal, none has announced timetables for retailing the vehicles. Almost all, however, have said they will have prototypes ready for road testing by mid-decade.

The motivator is California's drive to clean its air. The state Air Resources Board estimates that 40% of air pollution comes from automotive exhaust emissions and is requiring that, by 2003, 2% of passenger vehicles sold in the state by the largest auto makers be rated as zero-emission vehicles.

Nearly all the major auto makers are looking at hydrogen as the perfect fuel for electric cars that draw their power from fuel cells rather than storage batteries. A fuel cell's only tailpipe emission is water vapor. But producing the hydrogen does create carbon dioxide, a so-called greenhouse gas, and can create other pollutants depending on the hydrogen source used.

A fuel cell turns hydrogen gas into electrical current in a chemical process on board the vehicle. The current, in turn, runs a powerful electric motor that propels the car or truck.

But unlike its rivals, BMW plans to use liquid hydrogen to fuel an otherwise conventional internalcombustion engine, the powerful V-12 it reserves for just a handful of its top-of-the-line 750 sedans. These are cars that sell for about $93,000 without alterations for hydrogen fuel.

There's no guarantee that BMW's system will meet California's zero-emissions mandate. The internal combustion process creates small amounts of pollutants because of lubricating oils that are vaporized in the engine.

But BMW engineers have said they believe they can meet California's standards--perhaps by showing that their system, which refines hydrogen from water using solar heat, ultimately produces no more pollutants than the hydrogen refining processes that other auto makers are depending upon. GM, for instance, wants to break down gasoline to extract the hydrogen molecules; others lean toward hydrogen produced from natural gas.

"The challenge will be to create infrastructure and devise a way to store hydrogen on board" vehicles, said John Boesel, president of Calstart, a nonprofit group that fosters clean transportation technologies.

The auto makers said they are confident that new technologies have minimized concerns about the relative safety of the highly flammable fuel.

Manufacturers of storage systems are experimenting with solid materials that stabilize hydrogen by absorbing it and with pressurized tanks, wrapped in high-strength materials such as Kevlar, that are difficult to puncture or split.

"We have crash-tested our tanks" and found them to be trouble-free, said Burkhard Goschel, a member of BMW Group's management board.

Even if storage and emissions problems are resolved, it remains unclear whether a standardized hydrogen refining and retailing system would be necessary, and what standardizing would do to a maverick such as BMW that is pushing ahead with a system no one else seems inclined to use.

The auto makers are working with major fuel companies, including BP and Exxon Mobil Corp., to develop hydrogen manufacturing and distribution systems. Although hydrogen is the most abundant element on the planet, there is no global refining system to produce it as fuel, no distribution system for transporting it from refineries and no storage system for keeping it readily available at retail sites.

So although there may be a handful of hydrogen cars--using fuel cells or internal combustion--in selected showrooms by 2010, "we're a long way from putting hydrogen out there" for everyone to use, said Alan C. Lloyd, chairman of the California Air Resources Board.

From Cell to Sell

Only a few dozen fuel-cell vehicles are plying public roads as test beds for development. Many major auto makers have set deadlines for fielding small demonstration fleets, but few have set deadlines for limited retail sales.

*--*

Demonstration Retail Company vehicles sales BMW* Now 2010 DaimlerChrysler 2004 NA Ford 2004 2010 General Motors 2005 2010 Honda 2005 NA Hyundai NA NA Nissan 2005 NA Toyota NA NA

*--*

NA: Not available

* Hydrogen-burning internal combustion engine

Source: Times research

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