In what was probably the most high-profile turn-out for a service station opening, some 100 managers from four international carmakers, energy experts, environmentalists and a minister for transportation all convened at a Berlin service station to watch the first fleet of fuel cell-driven cars fill their tanks with hydrogen.
The demonstration at the Aral service station in downtown Berlin Friday marked the launch of what many environmentalists hope will be the start of a bigger trend towards hydrogen-powered vehicles. Although still in its infancy as far as widespread implementation goes, fuel cell cars are being regarded as an important development in the automotive industry to reduce gasoline emissions and world-wide dependence on oil supplies.
"The Berlin project is an important milestone on the road to a sustainable, emissions-free future for hydrogen-powered cars," proclaimed Uwe Franke, head of the German branch of BP.
For the first time in Europe, a service station offers drivers hydrogen -- in liquid and compressed form -- next to the usual pumps for gasoline and diesel, Franke said. Aral, which belongs to BP, has integrated the two forms of energy into one service station, and will serve as an important pioneer in the field.
Together with the other members of the Clean Energy Partnership (CEP) which includes representatives from the car industry, energy providers and transportation experts, BP hopes to gain more knowledge on the production, delivery and storage of hydrogen for fuel cell-driven cars.
Capacity for 100 cars
The Berlin service station has enough capacity to fill 100 vehicles with hydrogen. At the moment, though, there are only 16 cars and one city bus which will hook up at the Aral pumps. The cars from BMW, DaimlerChrysler, Ford and Opel are only prototypes and have not been designed for widespread use.
Although the automotive industry has generally expressed an interest in developing fuel cell-driven cars, the few models they have built are still only in the test phase. It will still be several years before the companies go into serial production.
DaimlerChrysler has said it intends to be the first to introduce a fuel cell car in 2010. General Motors and its German division Opel announced earlier in the year that they want to be the first to sell over a million hydrogen-powered cars in the near future.
For the time being, though, the biggest obstacle to hydrogen-powered cars is the price, both for the original purchase and refueling. Those who do drive one of the early models are primarily politicians, such as Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who were given the vehicles as part of a publicity campaign.
Road to the future
"We have a long road ahead of us," said German Transportation Minister Manfred Stolpe. "Until then hydrogen technology must prove itself as a reliable, cost-efficient and consumer friendly source of energy."
The production, storage and refueling of hydrogen, its price and performance must all be tested on real market conditions -- and that is the goal of the Berlin Aral station, Stolpe explained.
To help the alternative energy on its way into the future, the German government and the auto industry have pledged 33 million euros as part of the Clean Energy Partnership.