BMW's hydrogen-based vision of 'sustainable mobility'
Dr Helmut Panke, BMW's Chairman, recently visited London on the first stage of BMW's CleanEnergy World Tour 2002 - a lobbying event promoting hydrogen as the fuel of the future. But there's a 'catch 22'. Consumer demand must be present to justify the investment in infrastructure, but the infrastructure must be present to supply developing demand. The carmakers clearly need help, but will it be forthcoming?
"We have come to Great Britain with our CleanEnergy project because this country has enormous potential to promote and advance the hydrogen society," said Dr Panke, speaking recently at the London Science Museum to an audience of politicians, industry experts and academics. He was in London to promote BMW's vision of a future hydrogen-based society and zero emissions vehicles fitted with liquid hydrogen based ICE powertrains.
It is certainly an intriguing concept and one that promises much. If long-term road traffic projections are to be believed, the problem of CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions from road vehicles will be getting a lot worse. At a global level, the situation is compounded by the projected growth in motorisation in large emerging markets such as China and India. BMW's hydrogen solution yields zero harmful emissions. In many ways it is a tantalising prospect: the raw materials needed to produce liquid hydrogen are water and electricity.
Growing Mobility Demand
Road Traffic Forecasts: Western Europe (% Change) 1990-2025
Source: Prof. Garel Rhys
Director of Centre for Automotive Industry Research
The manufacturers are currently going down different technology routes on hydrogen. BMW is wedded to hydrogen in the internal combustion engine. Mercedes is developing a fuel cell using Methanol as a carrier of hydrogen and GM is looking at petrol as a "reformer". BMW says that it is better to jump in and develop a consensus on how to store and distribute hydrogen for direct combustion.
In its natural form, hydrogen is the lightest and most common element present in nature. It makes up two thirds of the universe and is found in massive quantities in water. With the help of electrolysis, water can be split into oxygen and hydrogen. The electrical energy used to conduct that operation is stored in the hydrogen which, when combusted in the automobile then combines again with oxygen to form water. The energy released in the combustion can - in BMW's model - be harnessed to drive the car under the principles of the ICE.
Zero emissions, but there are strings attached
There are absolutely no harmful emissions - out of the exhaust pipe comes steam. On the face of it, it's a compelling and ecologically sound vision, but there are a couple of serious problems (besides the operational aspects of dealing with liquid hydrogen at minus 253 degrees Celsius). The electricity generated to separate the hydrogen and oxygen from water needs to be generated by renewable energy sources or the pollution benefit from running on hydrogen is cancelled out. Substantial and widespread electricity generation from renewable energy sources looks some way off. The other problem is a network of liquid hydrogen filling stations - that will be vastly expensive to create.
Here's what Karl-Heinz Kalbfell, Senior Vice President Group Marketing of BMW, had to say on renewable energy, speaking at the London Science Museum on 18 April: "Now, there are countries that can be considered more sun-drenched than the British isles. However, the conditions for wind power are indeed very good. Your country has the potential of producing a large share of the entire hydrogen demand regeneratively. That is why hydrogen is also a very promising form of energy for you too."
He added: "Political decisions could therefore realise this potential. Low tax for hydrogen would give a clear signal."
The United Arab Emirates (Dubai) is emerging as a possible front-runner in this technology - it has abundant sun (solar power) and water for hydrogen generation. It is also rich - ironically on the back of oil revenues. The country plans to invest US$46 billion on environmental projects over the next decade and a considerable share will go into the production of hydrogen from solar thermally produced electricity.
Hydrogen can be transported, stored and used 'just like petrol'
"BMW is placing its bets clearly on liquid hydrogen"
As Karl-Heinz Kalbfell expressed it succinctly: " BMW is placing its bets clearly on liquid hydrogen."
Dr Panke summed up the political dimension: "BMW maintains that the vision of a hydrogen energy network can only be put into practice together with partners from politics and business. As BMW has proven last year the feasibility of hydrogen cars, the focus now must be to strengthen the debate about hydrogen infrastructure.
"The BMW Group is prepared to heavily invest in hydrogen technologies, but the precondition has to be a strong political commitment to hydrogen. Further investments can only be justified when infrastructure solutions can be developed and stable political frameworks can be implemented."
BMW's 'bivalent' ICE runs on gasoline or hydrogen
BMW says that it is well aware of the infrastructure problems and that 'you will be able to drive our hydrogen vehicles during the transition period from oil to hydrogen - a period which will last several decades'. BMW is confident that the bivalent concept will be key to the establishment of a hydrogen infrastructure and generating sufficient consumer interest and demand.
The current 7 Series will be available for purchase with a bivalent combustion engine - that is with hydrogen power - in 'just a few years' time'. It will be the first series production car with an internal combustion engine capable of running on liquid hydrogen.
The company has also said that under the right circumstances the BMW Group could consider the production of hydrogen internal combustion engines at its UK engine plant, Hams Hall in Warwickshire.
But UK Government's pro-fossil fuel stance looks like a setback
BMW has however voiced disappointment over the news that UK transport ministers have apparently decided that fossil fuels will not be phased out for at least another 50 years. UK Ministers have also decided that the way forward in reducing CO2 emissions from the vehicle fleet is via hybrid electric technology, rather than the wholesale adoption of alternative fuels such as BMW's hydrogen fuelled ICE.
UK government ministers have rejected a proposal from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution that hydrogen should be widely used to power cars by 2025 in order to meet a target of reducing carbon emissions by 60% by 2050.
"Hydrogen brings zero emissions - hybrids won't do that and end up costing more."
For now, BMW continues the CleanEnergy World Tour 2002, looking to build a political and economic consensus on its vision of a hydrogen society (the oil company BP is also involved as a supporter). But the British government's attitude may be typical - words of encouragement (there are also small tax incentives for hydrogen) but a clear reluctance to make the quantum leap to hydrogen. Governments may be far from convinced that hydrogen is the way to go, because of the lack of renewable sources of power generation - solar, wind and wave - on a 'politically relevant' timetable. Dates like 2050 do sound like a long way off and to politicians particularly so. Hybrid electric technology reduces CO2 without the big infrastructure issues associated with hydrogen. It may be a compromise solution, but the technology is here today and the infrastructure is in place.
'Hybrids will be more costly'
Chris Willows, BMW's UK Corporate Communications Director, told just-auto that BMW firmly believes that hybrid solutions will ultimately prove more costly and inefficient because they involve two engines rather than one, and that the hybrid approach fails to grapple with the route of the problem.
He said: "Hydrogen brings zero emissions - hybrids won't do that and end up costing more."
Willows added: "We are looking for a joined up solution here, so that the infrastructure can be developed for the best long term solution to the problem of CO2 emissions. This is a political matter of the highest importance."
BMW 745h with Hydrogen Drive
Just how close the hydrogen car now is to its actual introduction into the market is demonstrated clearly by the 745h prototype, the "h", as the chemical sign for hydrogen, standing for this alternative drive system.
During the production life of the latest 7 Series, BMW will be offering customers a hydrogen car built as standard on the basis of the current 7 Series. 2005 is considered a likely date for introduction.
The BMW 745h comes with the first 8-cylinder power unit featuring hydrogen drive. Displacing 4.4 litres, this V8 is largely identical to the new series-production engine with VALVETRONIC, bi-VANOS and the fully-variable intake manifold, supplemented by hydrogen injection. The 745h is able, through its dual-mode technology, to run on both petrol and hydrogen with a complete tank and supply system on board for each type of fuel.
Running on hydrogen, the engine of the 745h develops maximum output of 135 kW or 184 bhp. Top speed is 215 km/h or 133 mph, the cylindrical hydrogen tank integrated in the luggage compartment providing a cruising range of 300 kilometres or 190 miles.
Adding 650 kilometres or about 400 miles cruising range on petrol to this figure, the 745h is able to cover approximately 1,000 kilometres or 600 miles without even filling up the tank.
'CleanEnergy' 7 Series in new design
A number of design features distinguish the prototype BMW 745h from its conventional "brothers". One example is the transparent filler flap - reminiscent of the purity of water and alluding to a BMW 'CleanEnergy' theme. CleanEnergy branding symbols could be a feature of production cars.
Fuel cell APU for on-board electrical systems
The car comes with an APU Auxiliary Power Unit generating electricity for the car's various power-consuming items. While conventional batteries have to be charged by an alternator, this system based on a PEM (Polymer Electrolyte Membrane) fuel cell operates independently of the engine and is fed with hydrogen straight from the tank. This means that you can use power-consuming items such as the air conditioning or heating even if the engine is not running.
The fuel cell is claimed to generate three times as much power as an alternator, while also being more efficient in providing electric power only when required by specific power-consuming items currently switched on, while an alternator has to work permanently even though it is not always required. Applying this more economical mode of operation to a conventional engine running on petrol, BMW says that this results in a saving of one litre of fuel for every 100 kilometres in city traffic.
To read a just-auto forum discussion thread on this subject, please click here