By David L. Brown
Just ask an expert on alternative fuels — someone with impeccable credentials in the field such as George Bush or Arnold Schwarzenegger — and they will tell you that hydrogen fueled vehicles are the undisputed wave of the future. Governor Arnold even promised at one time to convert one of his many ecologically friendly Hummer vehicles to burn hydrogen gas. Way to go Arnold! And George Bush has variously stated that hydrogen, switchgrass, and perhaps even fairy dust could solve all of our energy problems.
And this is all completely true, as the BMW company has demonstrated with the introduction of the Hydrogen 7 automobile in Germany, a luxury car designed to run on liquid hydrogen. According to an article in the Spiegel International Online web site in Germany (here), this amazing harbinger of the future features a 12 cylinder 260 horsepower engine that can run on either gasoline or hydrogen gas. Several gas stations in Germany have been adapted to supply the liquid hydrogen gas.
So is there a glorious and efficient hydrogen future in store for us? Well, maybe not, because the BMW does have a few little problems that consumers may find troublesome. To put things in perspective, here are some facts about the Hydrogen 7 as reported by the Spiegel website and based on BMW’s specifications:
- Running on gasoline, the car will consume an average of 13.9 liters (3.7 gallons) per 100 kilometers (roughly 17 miles per gallon). Switch to hydrogen and you will consume a whopping 50 liters to drive the same distance.
- Liquid hydrogen must be kept extremely cold, below -423 degrees F in fact, so BMW has fitted the Hydrogen 7 with a “thermo-tank” designed to hold liquid H as well as regular gasoline. The tank takes up half the trunk but can only hold eight kilograms (17.6 lbs) of the extremely light hydrogen fuel—barely enough for a 200 kilometer (124 mile) trip.
- Another little problem: even the best insulation system can’t keep the liquid H cold forever, so some of it is always evaporating and must be released. Park your car for just nine days and you will discover that half the tank load has gone missing.
Hmm, doesn’t sound particularly appealing after all does it? But economy isn’t everything, so we must ask whether this amazing new vehicle is environmentally friendly, or as the Europeans like to say, green? Well, perhaps not. According to the Spiegel article:
The problem is that hydrogen is in scarce supply and producing it requires vast amounts of energy. Climate-friendly production of liquid hydrogen on a large scale presupposes a virtually unlimited supply of ecologically produced electricity — not something likely to materialize in the near future. That’s why energy experts from the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy believe forcing the transition to a hydrogen-based economy within the next three to four decades is “not an ecologically sound” idea.
Despite these “minor” considerations, BMW contends that hydrogen is an environmentally friendly fuel. The company’s ads picture the car in front of wind generators and solar cells to imply that it is both energy efficient and green. However, Spiegel’s Christian Wüst writes that:
…the image is one of deceit. Because the hydrogen dispensed at the new filling station is generated primarily from petroleum and natural gas, the new car puts about as much strain on the environment as a heavy truck with a diesel engine. Add the loss of environmental benefits involved in the production and transportation of the putatively clean fuel to the consumption of the car itself and you get an actual consumption corresponding to considerably more than 20 liters (5.3 gallons) of fossil fuel.
BMW is the only car company to be exploring the direct use of hydrogen to power internal combustion engines, according to the Spiegel report. They quote Frank Seyfried, research director for hydrogen-based propulsion at Volkswagen: “We think it’s nonsense.” VW and other companies that are exploring the use of H as an alternative fuel are betting on the use of fuel cells to generate power for future electric vehicles.
Concluding its report, the Spiegel article explains:
The environment isn’t the only loser: Customers will also have to shell out a lot of money for their deceptive display of ecologically responsible driving. The current standard price for liquid hydrogen is 57 euro cents (0.73 US cents) per liter (0.3 gallons). And the price tag on a 100 kilometer (62 mile) drive in the Hydrogen 7, at a comfortable speed, is about €30 ($38).
Well, a $38 fuel expense to travel 62 miles comes out to be 61 cents a mile. My Jeep Liberty vehicle gets around 22 m.p.g. on the highway, and regular gasoline is presently selling for about $2.20 at the pump. That means that I could drive 62 miles on about 2.8 gallons of fuel costing $6.16, or a cost of only about a dime a mile. That puts the fuel cost for the Hydrogen 7 at more than six times the cost of running on regular gasoline in my Jeep. Pump prices for gasoline would have to rise to around $13 to put it on the same level as the H-powered BMW. Somehow, I don’t think the world is quite ready for that. I know I’m not.
The company plans to produce 100 of the vehicles and lease them to “celebrities” as a demonstration. The choice must be due to the fact that as everyone knows, celebrities are much smarter than the rest of us. The company has not named the potential recipients, but we can imagine a fleet of the silver H-bombs appearing in Hollywood, home to many ecological geniuses such as are often featured in the pages of checkout counter newspapers. Hey, maybe even The Terminator will get to drive one of these babies! Way cool!
And, one would think the Germans would have learned their lesson after that nasty incident with the hydrogen-filled Hindenberg!