The Ventura city fire battalion chief is driving a multimillion-dollar vehicle this week.
No, it's not some ultra-tricked-out, hook-and-ladder firetruck, but rather the result of an innovative partnership between the fire department and BMW.
The BMW Hydrogen 7, one of only 22 in the United States, has been offered for a free weeklong test drive to a few lucky individuals, as a way of broadening public education about this relatively unknown automotive technology.
BMW has spent hundreds of millions of dollars over 30 years to develop hydrogen-fuel technology (the company had 300 full-time engineers working on the technology in 2006, according to the BBC), and there are only 100 such hydrogen-fueled vehicles in the world.
Only three liquid hydrogen fuel stations exist in the United States, but one of the fuel stations and six of the cars are in Ventura County. The county is a pioneer of this alternative energy because BMW's Engineering and Emissions Test Center is in Oxnard.
At the center, engineers test emissions and carry out a variety of other projects, including maintaining the Hydrogen 7 sedan. The car's engine can use either liquid hydrogen or gasoline, switching between the two at the touch of a button. It can run on hydrogen for up to 125 miles, then go an additional 300 miles on gasoline.
Hydrogen-powered cars raise great environmental hopes. They use the most abundant element on the planet and emit only water vapor and tiny amounts of compounds associated with engine lubricants. But the barriers to this bright future include the energy and infrastructure required to separate, transport and store hydrogen.
"Right now, this makes environmental sense only if we can buy 'green hydrogen' made from renewable sources," said Nadine Jambor of BMW's Clean Energy program. Such sources could include a wind-based hydrogen fuel production facility being constructed by the Automobile Club of Southern California and CSU Los Angeles.
BMW engineers recently formed partnerships with the Ventura city and county fire departments to address another important issue for hydrogen vehicles: safety.
Other companies are developing cars to run on hydrogen fuel cells. Honda, for example, will release the FCX this year. BMW is the only company producing vehicles relying on direct combustion of liquid hydrogen.
The Hydrogen 7 has a low-pressure, tremendously insulated tank holding 17.5 pounds of liquid hydrogen at minus 418 degrees Fahrenheit. Enhancing safety features, BMW strengthened its standard 7 Series chassis, passenger cabin, sides, engine and other elements.
Venturacity Battalion Chief Vernon Alstot and Jim Ackerman, a Ventura County fire captain, studied the safety issues that could arise from crashes involving the cars and worked with BMW to come up with an approach for first responders.
"If hydrogen was the standard and gasoline just came out, we would be doing the same thing," Alstot said. "We have to be prepared to respond to whatever new technology comes along."
Firefighters might be wary when they see a "hydrogen vehicle" insignia on a car at a crash site, but as Ackerman pointed out, "The Hindenburg didn't happen just because of hydrogen. The dirigible was made out of extremely flammable material."
According to Alstot and Ackerman, hydrogen vehicles are safer than gasoline cars in many ways. For example, gas can leak from ruptured tanks, spreading fire along the ground. But hydrogen is lighter than air, so it goes straight up.
Decals developed by Alstot, Ackerman and BMW will tell emergency personnel which cables to disconnect so they can disable dangers such as air bags without also cutting off the batteries monitoring hydrogen safety systems.
Because public safety personnel must stay prepared, Alstot this week is joining the ranks of Will Farrell, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Jay Leno, Richard Gere and Sharon Stone as one of the lucky people testing the Hydrogen 7.
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- David Goldstein is an environmental resource analyst for the county of Ventura. Representatives of government or nonprofit agencies that want to submit articles on environmental topics for this column should contact Goldstein at 658-4312 or email@example.com