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For several years, BMW has been building custom prototypes of luxury cars that can switch between hydrogen and gasoline in an internal-combustion engine. Now, the automaker is touting a version that has gone through rigorous product-development steps, so that it could theoretically be mass-manufactured–although BMW will make only 100 of them and give them away to a privileged group of as-yet-unnamed celebrities and politicians.

Many observers feel hydrogen as a transportation energy source is a far-out proposition. With this move, BMW has at least made a strong case that it will be more practical to burn hydrogen in a traditional internal combustion engine than to pass it through fuel cells to produce electricity to drive electric motors.

The question now is whether BMW’s project really pushes hydrogen cars any closer to adoption, or just represents a refinement of the necessary engineering details.

“They have come down on the side of “OK, if we are going to use hydrogen, using it in an internal combustion engine specially designed for that purpose is the better technology path,” rather than trying to bring brand-new technology to market, says John Heywood, director of the Sloan Automotive Laboratory at MIT. “I think it’s a technical judgment they are making, and maybe it’s got a mid-term, as opposed to a long-term, timescale. They are a high-performance-engine, fun-to-drive-car company. That is their culture, so this fits in with that culture.”

The hydrogen/gasoline prototype is based on BMW’s 7 series sedans, many of which retail for more than $100,000. (No price has been set on the new hybrid, since the car will not be sold.) The vehicle has a super-insulated tank that stores liquid hydrogen at minus-480 degrees F, and a special fuel-injection system that can switch between gasoline and hydrogen. The engine can pack a 260-horsepower wallop while burning hydrogen–something that an electric car powered by a hydrogen fuel cell cannot now do in such a large car, BMW says.

Thomas Korn, senior project engineer for BMW’s hydrogen program in Oxnard, CA, says the new car boasts not only high performance, but also low emissions. Hydrogen combustion leads to the formation of nitrogen oxides, but BMW’s new car has sophisticated control systems that optimize the concentrations of hydrogen being burned and the engine timing, to minimize or eliminate the formation of nitrogen oxides.

Should a demand ever emerge for such cars, BMW could theoretically mass-produce them, Korn says. Unlike an earlier batch of 12 hydrogen-powered prototypes made by BMW, the new car has gone through brutal longevity tests, and uses parts that can be mass-manufactured by suppliers, rather than one-off, custom-crafted components.

“It went through production process, so we have the technology to industrialize it,” says Korn. “On the other hand, the situation out there is not such that we can sell the car, because the potential customer hardly will find a place to fill up the car.”

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