One of the most anticipated cars to debut this week at the L.A. Auto Show is the BMW Hydrogen 7, which the automaker bills as the “world’s first hydrogen-drive luxury performance automobile.” The Hydrogen 7 is essentially a BMW 7 Series vehicle equipped with a 260-horsepower, 12-cylinder engine that can burn both gasoline and liquid hydrogen fuel. The liquid hydrogen is stored in a large tank that takes up part of the car’s trunk. The vehicle is expected to go into production next year, with 100 vehicles being made available worldwide on a lease basis to high-profile individuals such as celebrities.
In creating its hydrogen vehicles, BMW has pursued a different route than other carmakers, who have relied primarily on hydrogen fuel cells. Instead, BMW has chosen to pump liquid hydrogen fuel directly into a onboard tank. The liquid hydrogen is then used to power the car via the reconfigured engine. While this in some ways improves efficiency, it also creates some problems. For instance, for the hydrogen to remain in its liquid form, it must be stored at a temperature of minus 423 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, the hydrogen must be pumped into the car from a hydrogen storage facility, which are in noticable short supply at the moment. One source estimated that there are only about 12 such facilities worldwide. So until the infrastructure for hydrogen improves, there will be few hydrogen fuel stations to which you’ll be able to pull up your vehicle for refueling.
Other aspects of the hydrogen fuel system have proved controversional as well. For instance, since hydrogen is rarely available in its pure form on earth, it takes quite a bit of energy to generate the hydrogen, which currently is derived primarily from natural gas and petroleum products. But BMW is working closely with a solar facility in Germany to develop a system by which the hydrogen is generated using renewable energy sources.
All this, however, shouldn’t detract from the fact that the world’s automakers, and BMW in particular in this case, are moving forward on developing vehicles that are powered by alternative fuels.
BMW notes that its new Hydrogen 7 can accelerate from 0 to 62 mph in 9.5 seconds, and has a cruising range of more than 400 miles on the combined tanks of gas and hydrogen. However, it is able to travel just 125 miles on the hydrogen fuel alone, and at this point filling the hydrogen tank is relatively expensive, in the range of $80 to $100 in U.S. dollars. The best news is that the byproduct of the hydrogen combustion is largely water vapor.
Certainly more will be written about the Hydrogen 7 in the days and weeks to come, and it’s certainly a car worth keeping our eyes on, if only for the fact that it is pushing the limits of today’s automative technology.