A NEW 7 series BMW automobile today cruises the autobahns of Germany, showing the world that a new type of fuel can meet high performance standards while producing virtually no emissions. The new silver-blue automobile runs on hydrogen with gasoline as backup. BMW has put this model into volume production. If the company is this serious about hydrogen fuel, then other companies certainly will follow.

For decades, auto companies have researched and experimented with hydrogen-powered engines. After all, hydrogen is the world's most common element. As a gas, it is colorless, odorless and tasteless. Plus, hydrogen packs more energy than gas. BMW says that, in relation to weight, the energy density of hydrogen is nearly three times that of gasoline.

Challenges

Of course, hydrogen poses many problems for engine development. As a gas, it is too bulky to use for an auto fuel. But at -418°F, hydrogen liquefies and shrinks to one-thousandth its original volume.

BMW's engineers developed a liquid hydrogen storage tank that can maintain the very cold liquid but won't injure passengers in an accident. The tank holds 17.5 lbs. of liquid hydrogen and sits between the trunk and the rear passenger seat. The hydrogen tank is actually two tanks, with the inner one surrounded by 40 layers of aluminum foil, the equivalent of 56 ft. of Styrofoam.

A major feat for BMW is the 7.60-liter, 12-cyl. engine that powers the car. Running on both hydrogen and gas, the engine will propel the auto to speeds of 143 mph. The driver can switch to either fuel by pressing the H2 button on the steering wheel. The hydrogen tank provides fuel for 125 miles, and the 16-gal. gas tank contains fuel for another 425 miles. When hydrogen is used, the only emission is a little water vapor.

Ethanol connection

If BMW is successful with its venture into hydrogen fuel, surely other auto manufacturers will come on board with it. Biofuels, including ethanol, will be shuffled to the back burner.

But ethanol may have a unique place in the hydrogen fuel business. It can be a source of hydrogen. Hydrogen is difficult to extract from forms like water, but research shows that hydrogen is more easily extracted from ethanol. So although hydrogen may someday replace ethanol as a fuel, ethanol may in turn become a major source of the new fuel.

By the way, don't bother trying to buy one of the new hydrogen-powered BMWs. The company has restricted production to 100 vehicles this year. To get one, you have to be a very important person — like the governor of California.