The Future Is….Wet
When BMW unveiled its 750hL earlier this year, the media response was muted. This despite the fact that the 750hL is the world's first production-ready hydrogen powered passenger car. Well, hydrogen and petrol, and, um, it's actually super-cooled hydrogen, but hey, we are talking about a luxury car that can steam from zero to sixty in 9.6 seconds and drive 300 kilometres between fill-ups, without a single harmful emission.
Sure, a few "challenges" remain before the 750hL will replace the semi-electric Toyota Prius as the tree hugger's favourite. At the moment, only two specialist filling stations offer super-cooled hydrogen (LA and Munich). There are "safety issues" surrounding the use of a fuel that can freeze your fingers right off. Even so, BMW's self-confessed "transitional vehicle" marks the global automotive industry's path towards a hydrogen-powered future.
GM, Ford, Daimler-Chrysler Volkswagen, Nissan and Toyota are all committed to selling zero emissions, hydrogen-powered cars by 2010. Which raises an interesting question. Why? Considering the gigantic cost and Herculean hassle of creating an entirely new means of propulsion, you'd think car manufacturers would prefer to clean up the existing petrol engine and call it good. And so they would. If they could. But they can't. Blame– or thank– California.
In the 1970's, California forced car manufacturers to lower emissions. Regulators established a precedent (foreshadowed by Ralph Nader): politics dictating automotive development. In other words, the free market was cut out of the action. Now that the world has decided that Global Warming exists and SOMETHING MUST BE DONE, something will.
Hydrogen is the left leaning environmentalist's fuel of choice. The power to convert water into hydrogen and oxygen gas can come from anywhere: solar, wind, thermal, tidal, nuclear, even rotting garbage. Replacing the western world's 100 million plus petrol-driven cars with hydrogen-powered vehicles could trigger the long-awaited, politically correct development of renewable energy sources.
More important to those on the other side of the political spectrum, such a diverse hydrogen infrastructure would free the western world from the financial, military and political cost of drilling, refining and distributing Middle Eastern petrochemicals.
September 11th gave both sides in the pro-hydrogen camp new impetus. America and its allies finally woke up to the possibility– the necessity– of reducing its dependence on foreign oil. Hydrogen power suddenly became a national priority.
If only. While recent events have liberated new funds for hydrogen research, war is still the more practical option. Manufacturers have several hurdles before they can even think about filling the new world's hydrogen order. First, they need to perfect the hydrogen fuel cell.
Size matters. The most efficient fuel cells are two to three times larger than a conventional petrol engine. That's fine for a bus, but not a car. Case in point: Ford's Focus FCV (Fuel Cell Vehicle). Engineers had to raise the floor and eliminate the boot to fit a 22-gallon hydrogen tank. The resulting FCV weighs 1200lbs. more than it gasoline-powered equivalent, travels just 100 miles between fill-ups, and it's not even on the same performance planet as the Focus RS.
Car manufacturers and lawmakers alike are throwing billions of pounds at universities and R&D departments in the search for a smaller, more powerful hydrogen fuel cell. So far, so bad.
Meanwhile, GM estimates that a suitable fuel cell would be two to three times as expensive as a gasoline engine. Industry cheerleaders claim that costs will decrease as the market expands, like they did for mobile phones and PC's. Manufacturing techniques would have to evolve quickly, and the Marketing Men would have to convince millions of people their hydrogen car will not Hindenburg.
There's only one way to accelerate the process: raise the price of gasoline to levels that would give "Red" Ken Livingstone wet dreams. Political suicide. Anyway, even if a practical, cost-effective hydrogen technology existed, who's going to pay for all those new filling stations?
The smart money is on the oil companies. BP, Shell, Texaco and Exxon. All the big oil companies are looking to build hydrogen production plants next to their oil refineries. The power to transform water into hydrogen gas would come from… oil. To remove pollution from the process, carbon wastes would be removed at the well or refinery, and then buried underground. While Greenpeace and chums aren't buying "carbon sequestration", it's not a debate destined to mobilise the masses.
The idea of using Middle Eastern oil to make hydrogen to fuel zero emissions passenger cars is bizarre, to say the least. But like the BMW 750hL itself, it's the unavoidable short-term bridge between the current set-up, and the one to come. Given the political climate, resistance to the concept is unlikely. In fact, providing BMW removes the iDrive and brings down the zero to sixty times, even petrolheads may be ready to face a hydrogen-powered future.
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