Will Chicago’s Big Story Be the BMW Hydrogen 7?

BMW Hydrogen 7

The Volt, Chevrolet’s dual-fuel concept car, was by far the biggest story of the Detroit Auto Show – and it isn’t even scheduled for production for at least two years. With that in mind, it seems likely that the BMW Hydrogen 7 is going to be one of the most buzzworthy exhibits at next month’s Chicago Auto Show.

Built on the Series 7 platform, the Hydrogen 7 has dual fuel tanks, enabling the driver to switch from liquid hydrogen power to ordinary gasoline. Somewhere in between a concept car and a production model, the Hydrogen 7 is being released in a beta-testing limited edition of 100 during the 2007 model year. Yep, that’s 100 total, to be distributed among North America, Europe, and Japan. If you’re not a celebrity or an industry insider, the closest you’re going to come to one of these for a while is at an auto show.

So expect big crowds around the Hydrogen 7 in Chicago. Finding alternatives to good old gasoline is becoming America’s latest obsession; the folks in Regensburg, though, have been working on the hydrogen idea for a while as part of their Clean Energy initiative. Critics point out that, at the moment, the environmental and financial costs of producing the liquid hydrogen fuel outweigh its potential “green advantage”; BMW counters with a visionary (and perhaps a bit high-flown) evocation of “the dream of sustainable mobility,” with forecasts of hydrogen fuel being produced by wind and water power, and the Hydrogen 7 being almost part of the natural cycle.

It’s a lovely thought. And certainly, the BMW Hydrogen 7 puts paid to the notion that a hydrogen-fueled car can’t be produced in the current manufacturing environment. Like the Chevrolet Volt, it offers both an alternative-fuel and conventional-fuel power source, which neatly addresses the “out of juice and out of town” problem faced by the drivers of the last generation of electric cars. The Hydrogen 7 driver who’s far away from a liquid hydrogen fuel source can just keep filling the gas tank as long as necessary, which makes it seem like a more realistic option in our petroleum-junkie world.

But is the Hydrogen 7 really ready for prime time? A Wired magazine road test confirmed that the Hydrogen 7 drives, looks, and feels like a gas-powered car (which is a huge leap forward), but also flagged some fundamental impracticalities of the new vehicle.

Not only is the liquid hydrogen fuel expensive, hard to find, and not really very environmentally friendly or energy-efficient to produce (at the moment, at least), it apparently boils out of the fuel tank at air temperature. This is, of course, because hydrogen is a gas at temperatures above minus 423 degrees Fahrenheit, and even the engineering wizards at BMW can’t design a fuel tank that’s insulated enough to keep the fuel cold enough for more than 17 days.

So, like the Chevy Volt, the Hydrogen 7 is an example of engineering technology that’s a few years ahead of manufacturing capabilities – not to mention economic and commercial infrastructure. It’s a noble experiment nonetheless, and one that will be getting a lot of press over the next several months. If you get to Chicago, check out the Hydrogen 7 and do a little dreaming; maybe reality will be catching up with you soon!

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