The March/April edition of Technology Review includes in interesting review by David Talbot covering BMW’s Hydrogen 7 automobile. As the car’s name implies, it is an H2-fired machine. However, BMW’s spin on this hydrogen vehicle is an unconventional reliance upon tried-and-true internal combustion (IC) to provide motive power. Other manufacturers with hydrogen aspirations are looking to put fuel cells under the hood, for example Honda’s FCX Fuel Cell Vehicle, to capitalize on the high energy conversion efficiency afforded by fuel cell technology. BMW’s IC interpretation on H2 enables vehicles that burn both gasoline and hydrogen – creating a flex fuel vehicle of a different color than ethanol yellow not reliant upon Bush’s fairytale hydrogen economy to get from A to B.
Unfortunately, Talbot’s Tech Review article buries the BMW Hydrogen 7 before putting the key into the ignition. Talbot cites a calculation by Dr. Joseph Romm, formerly of the Department of Energy, that estimates driving 1000 miles in a hydrogen car dumps 2,100 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere while 1000 miles in a conventional car produces just 485 pounds of CO2. This calculation assumes that the hydrogen is generated using electrons originating from a coal-fired power plant! Talbot and Romm could have been a bit kinder by noting that there exist more environmentally-benign (albeit less technically mature) hydrogen production methods; most notably use of renewable power sources combined with reversible fuel cells. Even deriving hydrogen from natural gas is potentially less polluting than brute-force electrolysis driven by a coal plant.
While hydrogen as an energy carrier has its problems, the bigger challenge remains lack of a clear path for the automotive industry to provide the US with cars that meet our perceived transportation needs while eliminating pollution and dependency on foreign fossil fuels. Each manufacturer seems to have its pet approach, but none has yet to invent a silver-bullet solution embraced by the market. As case in point, check out this month’s Design News feature article on the Chevy Volt and the associated commentary between bloggers Chuck Murry (“About Those Electric Vehicles…”) and John Dodge (“What about the Chevy Volt, Chuck!?”).
Hydrogen-fired vehicles may not be the right answer, but at least BMW had the courage to put a new twist on an old technology and attempt to take it for a spin. The easiest way to fail in this quest for a sustainable planet is surely to stop innovating.
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