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BMW and Total take next hydrogen step

Hydro: BMW has developed Hydrogen-powered cars since the 1970s.

BMW takes the next step to a hydrogen-powered automotive world by teaming with Total

BMW logo5 Jun 2006

BMW may be on the verge of launching a new range of petrol-electric models powered by new hybrid technology developed jointly with General Motors and DaimlerChrysler, but that hasn’t stopped the German car giant announcing a joint-venture fuel distribution network with petroleum producer Total to promote the next big step in alternative vehicle power: hydrogen.

BMW last week announced it has signed an agreement with Total to "co-operate closely in future in promoting hydrogen as a source of energy in road traffic".

In practice, the deal will see Total set up and operate three hydrogen filling stations in Europe by the end of 2007 to support "the introduction of BMW hydrogen cars into the market".

The arrangement is an extension of the Clean Energy Partnership (CEP) Berlin Initiative, which is supported by the German federal government.

Under the CEP, in March this year Total opened a public filling station in Berlin that offers both conventional fuels and hydrogen, replacing the test pilot station Total had operated since 2002.

A second hydrogen station will be opened near BMW’s Research and Innovation Centre in Detmoldstrasse, Munich, by the end of 2006. The location of a third hydrogen outlet will be announced within weeks.

For its part, BMW has committed to releasing its first hydrogen-powered vehicle by mid-2008, based on its 7 Series flagship sedan, and is reported to have invested well over a billion dollars over the past 25 years to develop hydrogen combustion technology.

Last week’s announcement is further tangible evidence the German maker intends to go it alone on hydrogen-powered internal combustion engine technology at a time when many of its rivals – including GM and DC – have signaled their intention to develop fuel cell-powered vehicles that use hydrogen to produce electricity to power electric motors.

Most industry observers believe hydrogen cars will not be widely available until at least 2015. In the meantime, BMW’s collaboration with GM and DC will allow BMW to offer hybrid-powered models, which most analysts agree will be an interim step on the way to zero-emission cars powered solely by renewable resources like hydrogen.

Professor Burkhard Göschel, the BMW board member for development and purchasing who is on record as saying "A Rolls(-Royce) would be an ideal hydrogen car", said last week:"Parallel to the establishment of the appropriate hydrogen infrastructure, the BMW Group is consistently promoting the introduction of hydrogen cars.

"Currently BMW is in a process of series development, and in less than two years we will be presenting a BMW 7 Series Hydrogen Car to the public."Prof Göschel was integral in the development of BMW first hydrogen car, the 750hL, the hydrogen-powered Mini concept revealed at the 2001 Frankfurt show, the record-breaking H2R Record Car and the current 745h, whose 4.4-litre V8 can run on either petrol or hydrogen.

"As a leading company in processing and marketing petroleum products in Europe, Total also wishes to play a leading role in the industrial and technical development of hydrogen as a fuel," said Total’s director general for refinery operations and marketing, Michel Bénézit.

"As a source of energy and from the perspective of environmental care, hydrogen offers clear benefits already proven and substantiated in practice."

Combustion engines versus fuel cells

CAR companies agree that hydrogen power represents the future for the automobile - once a safe method of storing and distributing the zero-emission fuel is in place.

But BMW is the only major car-maker heading down the hydrogen-fuelled internal combustion engine route, and it says it’s doing it not only for the environment - but for us.

GM has teamed up with Toyota, and Ford with DaimlerChrysler, to develop fuel cell technology, and the world’s top four car-makers argue the electric motors of fuel-cell vehicles are quieter than combustion engines, offer better acceleration at low speeds, are less expensive to maintain and offer twice the energy efficiency of a combustion engine.

BMW says using the same zero-emission hydrogen fuel to power a modified version of the internal combustion engine that’s powered cars for more than a century is not only cheaper, but has so far delivered better results in terms of performance.

True to its performance image, BMW says its customers won’t accept the poor high-speed performance of fuel cell vehicles, nor the sound they produce, which has been described by some as akin to a vacuum cleaner.

While the BMW/Total deal proves the hydrogen-powered motor car is imminent, two such vastly different ways of employing the alternative fuel could have serious ramifications for the losing bidder and its suppliers in terms of future technology developments.

According to former BMW chairman Joachim Milberg: "History will decide, but my opinion is that customers will like combustion engines more than fuel cells."

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