Chalk one up for Wolfgang Reitzle, the former BMW product chief who focused the company on fuel cell technology more than two decades ago.
Skeptics still wonder if clean-power hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles ever will take hold. But BMW is at least using the technology in its U.S. assembly plant.
The Spartanburg, S.C., factory now has 100 forklifts and other material-handling vehicles powered by rechargeable hydrogen-reaction batteries. Richard Morris, BMW's assembly vice president, says it started as a fuel cell experiment and turned out to have big advantages over conventional battery-operated versions.
The fuel cell batteries convert hydrogen into electricity through two internal electrochemical reactions, with heat and water as their only byproduct. The batteries perform at 100 percent strength for eight to 10 hours until depleted, rather than slowly loosing their oomph. It then takes an operator just three minutes to recharge them completely with more hydrogen.
Reitzle, the colorful Errol Flynn look-alike who left BMW in 1999, moved to Ford's Premier Automotive Group. A few years he later became CEO of Linde Group, a German maker of forklifts that has developed hydrogen power technology.
The supplier of Spartanburg's advanced hydrogen systems? Linde.
Thus, Reitzle, who turns 63 this week and is now chairman of supplier giant Continental, continues to influence the company that made him famous.