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Even in relatively green-thinking Germany–whose government subsidizes the BMW development effort–there are only a handful of hydrogen filling stations. “Our idea is to give it away to selected users and push the hydrogen economy, and actually get another step done.”

So BMW is both excited about hydrogen and aware that it’s not headed for showrooms anytime soon. That’s because any serious effort to use hydrogen in automobiles raises fundamental questions about how best to make it, deliver it, and store it cheaply aboard a car.

In fact, hydrogen is really only a storage medium for energy, not a fuel source itself. To make it, you need either to first extract it from a fossil fuel–which defeats the purpose of cleaner transportation energy–or to pull it out of water by splitting water molecules with electricity. If the electricity comes from a fossil fuel, again the point is defeated. Thus, making it a sustainable energy source requires using electricity from renewable sources like wind or solar–at a time of great demand for the small supply of such electricity. Such sources would have to be massively expanded for hydrogen to make a significant dent.

Still, none of these drawbacks to hydrogen have stopped BMW from evangelizing about it. “Hydrogen is the fuel of the future. We need a new fuel sooner or later, and the one which is endless, let’s say, is hydrogen. That’s the motivation for BMW in this field,” Korn says. And what’s clear is that the company is the leader in advancing hydrogen-combustion engines, although other companies are also working on them, as well as fuel cells.

MIT’s Heywood notes, however, that even if hydrogen’s problems can be solved, hydrogen is, at best, 50 years away from making a meaningful contribution to our energy needs. “A feeling is growing, that, really, hydrogen isn’t a particularly convenient way of doing all of this. It doesn’t automatically go to the top of the list, but it is a potential way to deal with transportation’s contributions to greenhouse-gas emissions,” he says. “But you’ve got to be really careful about how you produce the hydrogen, and then you have a lot of distribution and storage issues that have got to be worked out, so it is still a very open question.”

Which leaves one question: Who will get these cars? “People who have an impact on public opinion. People who come from the political arena, from industry, entertainment,” says Korn. What about California’s Governor Schwarzenegger? “No comment,” he says.

“I think they should give it to one or two really prestigious engineers,” says Heywood, “to in a sense change the flavor of the media-related effort, and underline that this is a technology exploration.” But he adds that he’s not interested.

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