GM and BMW have introduced hydrogen-powered vehicles.
Forget ethanol or biodiesel. The next big thing in automotive fuel may very well be hydrogen.
Automakers rapidly are closing in on making hydrogen fuel cell vehicles an everyday fact of life, with several test models set to debut over the next few years.
Hydrogen fuel cells to power vehicles is desirable, experts say, because hydrogen is a renewable fuel that can be used to create electricity to run cars. A chemical reaction between oxygen and hydrogen produces the electric power, and when pure hydrogen is used, the only emission from the tailpipe is harmless water vapor.
BMW recently introduced the world's first hydrogen-drive luxury car, the Hydrogen 7, which can run either on hydrogen or gasoline. And General Motors last month introduced a production-ready version of Chevy's hydrogen fuel cell-powered Sequel and said it planned to release a fleet of hydrogen fuel cell-powered Chevy Equinox crossovers next fall.
'Quite a ways out'
To be sure, it will be many years -- if then -- before it's determined whether hydrogen has a future in the industry. For one, just developing the necessary infrastructure to "fill up" and maintain hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles would represent a huge undertaking.
From storage facilities at the point of production to pipelines, trucks, compressors and dispensers where customers would fill up at refueling station or stationary power site, "We're quite a ways out," said Paul Lacy, manager of technical research for Troy, Mich.-based Global Insight, an economic and market research concern.
"We have 600 stations of 180,000 gasoline stations in the country that even have ethanol," he said. "To bring out hydrogen is a whole new task."
And that's just on the production and delivery side of the equation.
Many wonder whether powerful oil companies and their advocates would stand by and allow development of a competing hydrogen infrastructure, even though President Bush has pushed for more research and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said he envisions a day when hydrogen filling stations dot California's highways.
Then, of course, there are concerns about cost and safety.
Hydrogen fuel cells, while about twice as efficient as internal-combustion engines using gas, cost nearly 100 times as much per unit of power produced, critics note.
And hydrogen is explosive. It ignites at a wider range of concentrations than natural gas and requires less energy to ignite, Michael D. Amiridis, chair of the chemical engineering department at the University of South Carolina, told the Web site and gas-electric hybrid cars advocate hybridcars.com.
"It's scary -- you cannot see the flame, " Amiridis said.
Still, automakers are pushing ahead.
"What we can do from our side is to show that technology is mainly feasible, and we have many corporate projects in this area," said BMW's corporate communications manager Andreas Klugescheid. Its North America Engineering and Emission Test Center in California, for example, has been testing two BMW Hydrogen 7 prototypes that run on both hydrogen and gasoline, using a dual-fuel engine and two separate fuel tanks.
With the push of a button on its steering wheel, the Hydrogen 7 can run on either hydrogen or gasoline. It can go 125 miles on its hydrogen mode and 300 on its gasoline mode, thus limiting the possibility that its driver might be stranded, given that there's only one hydrogen filling station in California, near Los Angeles.