BMW’s iX5 signals the company’s push for hydrogen

Hydrogen-powered cars are a drop in the bucket of 1.47 billion cars. The same goes for renewable ‘green’ hydrogen fuel, or any infrastructure to effectively deliver it to vehicles or power their factories. But despite rampant skepticism in some corners, BMW is among the automakers and policymakers convinced that our lightest atomic element holds a key to achieving carbon neutrality – for our passenger cars, commercial trucks and the energy grid itself .

The Bavarian carmaker has launched a trial fleet of iX5 Hydrogen SUVs in South Africa, expanding a ‘world tour’ for the iX5 that kicked off in Antwerp, Belgium. Billed as the world’s most powerful fuel cell vehicle, the iX5 is based on the X5, which has an internal combustion engine and is among BMW’s best-selling models.

The iX5 eschews an internal combustion engine in favor of a 125 kW (170 hp) fuel cell stack. That stack powers an electric drive unit, using BMW’s fifth-generation eDrive technology, on the rear axle. Under the floor of the

BMW’s hydrogen system comes together in Munich and generates 295 kW (401 hp) in the iX5.BMW

Coincidentally – and ideal for performing conversions in your head – one kilo of hydrogen at 700 bar contains almost exactly the energy of a liter of gasoline. A small 2.5 kilowatt-hour battery, about the size of those in non-plug-in hybrids, makes up for the fuel cell’s power deficit with a power output of up to 170 kW (231 hp). That brings the total system power to a robust 295 kW (401 hp), enough to reach a top speed of 180 kilometers per hour (112 miles per hour). Regenerative brakes capture kinetic energy, increasing the iX5’s total driving range to 504 km (313 miles) under Europe’s Worldwide Harmonized Light Vehicle Test Procedure cycle.

Last year BMW gave me a fascinating look at its Hydrogen Competence Center as it prepared the iX5 Hydrogen for its global development tour. The iX5 has visited almost every continent and will now reach Australia in 2024, aiming to raise awareness of hydrogen’s role in the energy transition. The iX5 emerges from the nearby Munich Research and Innovation Center (FIZ), where every concept car from the BMW Group brands takes shape, including models on their way to showroom production. About 900 employees work at the pilot plant, where BMW has produced fewer than 100 iX5 vehicles to date.

These fuel cell operations are a short drive from the century-old factory in Munich, which BMW is transforming into a leading factory. An ultimate goal is to supply that factory and other factories with renewable energy, including hydrogen. BMW is the first German car manufacturer to sign the United Nations ‘Race to Zero’ pledge, with BMW committed to becoming completely CO2 neutral by 2050. And BMW executives and engineers seem convinced that without hydrogen in the energy mix – including for personal and commercial trucks that may be poorly suited to battery propulsion – the transportation sector, and countries in general, have virtually no chance of containing the rise in global temperatures to counteract.

“Hydrogen is a versatile energy source that plays a key role,” says Frank Weber, member of the BMW Board of Management. “We are sure that hydrogen will become significantly more important for individual mobility.”

BMW’s fuel cells are designed in-house, but they start with Toyota fuel cell plates, the same as in the subcompact Toyota Mirai. These wafer-thin plates – about the size and shape of an air conditioning filter – are precisely stacked by an automated machine that compresses hundreds of plates. Another machine inspects individual cells to ensure no hydrogen escapes, as the gaseous element often does. That thick stack of cells is sealed in a sand casting housing and mounted in a rear carrier of the iX5.

The fuel cell stack of an iX5 is assembled via an automated process.BMW

An electric compressor, similar to a turbocharger, forces hydrogen fuel into the stack of plate membranes, where a catalyst separates hydrogen molecules into protons and electrons. The protons and electrons take separate paths to a battery cathode, where electrons create the flow of electricity, with water vapor as the only byproduct.

Perform the aforementioned conversion and the BMW’s onboard hydrogen delivers the equivalent of 26.4 kilometers per liter, or 62 miles per gallon – more than 2.5 times the energy efficiency of an X5 xDrive 40i and its six-cylinder petrol engine . And in theory, refilling your tank via a hydrogen pump takes less than 5 minutes. Take that, EVs.

BMW Group – which includes the Mini and Rolls-Royce brands – sold a record 376,000 battery electric vehicles (BEVs) worldwide in 2023, up 74 percent from 2022. That brought BMW’s BEV sales to a healthy 15 percent of a 2.5 million. -autototal, which easily surpasses the electric percentages and totals of its German rivals Mercedes-Benz and Audi. Despite these booming sales, Juergen Guldner, BMW’s general program manager for hydrogen technology, said hydrogen cars are not either-or competitors with electric cars, but rather a complementary technology.

“Because hydrogen cars combine the benefits of electric driving with the ability to refuel quickly, they would be ideal for customers who travel a lot or do not have electric charging at home or at work,” said Guldner.

However, the ‘possibility’ of quick fuel stops faces a problem: compressed hydrogen remains unavailable to the driving public in a real sense, with fewer than 350 public stations in the United States and the European Union combined. And fuel cell cars essentially don’t exist in showrooms and are limited to tiny fleets for beta-testing customers of Toyota, Honda and a few other brands. With almost no fuel produced for retail use, hydrogen is extremely expensive, driving costs per mile at least double the price of gasoline. And for now, hydrogen is produced almost entirely from polluting natural gas or other fossil fuels, diluting any potential environmental advantage.

Advocates like Thomas Hofmann, a hydrogen manager for BMW, acknowledge every hurdle. But Hofmann and other experts have concluded that electric vehicles and their infrastructure cannot possibly serve every vehicle or use case, whether consumer or trucking. Several experts agree, including a report from the International Energy Agency that highlights hydrogen’s potential in the energy transition, including transport and storage.

Electricity “is unlikely to work 100 percent of the time,” says Hofmann.

Although BMW has deployed hydrogen for a showroom-style SUV, the company still considers medium to large trucks as the most beneficial use for hydrogen.

“The heavier and larger the vehicle, the more useful hydrogen makes,” says Hofmann, because EV batteries at that point provide diminishing returns in terms of range and costs.

To that end, proponents say hydrogen can fill gaps in transportation and energy generation that other renewable energy sources can’t match. Hydrogen can be stored and transported cheaply via pipelines. It can diversify the energy supply chain and protect against shortages. Hofmann co-authored a white paper on the nascent hydrogen economy for VDE Renewables. From the paper:

Electricity generation from wind and solar energy is subject to strong daily and seasonal fluctuations. The potential to produce green energy also varies greatly geographically. Hydrogen offers an optimal solution for bridging the gap between intermittent generation and the need to supply green energy on-demand across all sectors.

As for the virtual absence of renewable hydrogen, an analysis from McKinsey & Company suggests that the price of green hydrogen will quickly fall below that of fossil hydrogen as market penetration grows. Proponents cite growing government and environmental support for hydrogen, such as President Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Paris climate accords. The EU has drawn up rules calling for a minimum number of hydrogen stations. Hofmann’s study predicts a global investment of $240 billion in hydrogen by 2030.

Hofmann’s article warns that current investments in hydrogen are still largely driven by global subsidies. And in a major understatement, the newspaper mentions great uncertainty about the expected return on private investments in hydrogen.

That uncertainty extends to showrooms. For now, BMW’s iX5 is strictly a testing ground for the technology. But the automaker plans to bring its first mass-produced fuel cell car to showrooms by 2030. That’s around the time BMW expects there will be 10 million electric cars on the roads worldwide, and ideally the associated charging infrastructure. This is quite some catching up for hydrogen.

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