BMW is getting ready to launch its first hydrogen-powered vehicle, a version of the X5 SUV it expects to bring to market by 2025, a senior official confirmed.
The German automaker’s fuel-cell vehicle is being developed as part of a joint venture with Toyota, itself one of the industry’s biggest advocates for hydrogen technology. It currently sells the Mirai, and BMW’s new iX5 Hydrogen would use similar technology.
But BMW isn’t the only German automaker getting serious about hydrogen power. Porsche’s exploring the use of the lightweight gas as an alternative to gasoline to fuel an internal combustion engine, rather than feed a fuel-cell stack. Ironically, that’s an approach BMW explored for a number of years but has since abandoned.
“We see that hydrogen fuel cell technology is particularly relevant for larger SUVs,” BMW sales chief Pieter Nota told Japan’s Nikkei news service, noting the German automaker has “various projects we work on with Toyota,” he continued, hinting at more fuel cell vehicles besides the iX5 Hydrogen.
Two different approaches
The two automakers have a similar philosophy that, while both are aiming for zero emissions, calls for the use of a variety of different powertrain technologies. These include not only pure battery-electric vehicles but hybrids, plug-ins and fuel-cell vehicles.
The latter technology pushes pure hydrogen gas into a device known as a fuel-cell stack. There it combines with oxygen from the air in the presence of a catalyst, such as platinum. Electrons are stripped from the gas and are used to power electric motors, rather than batteries. That’s why the technology is sometimes referred to as a “refillable battery.”
There are some key advantages: a fuel-cell vehicle, or FCV, can store significant amounts of hydrogen onboard. In the Toyota Mirai XLE that provides up to 402 miles of range, according to the EPA. And those tanks can be refueled as quickly as a conventional gas tank. There also are a number of downsides. Producing pure hydrogen is energy intensive and the cost is relatively high. Plus, the distribution network is even smaller than the rapidly growing public charging network.
Demand for fuel-cell vehicles is growing — slowly
It has begun to expand, however, Jack Hollis, the new head of North American sales for Toyota said during a Thursday webinar. And, in turn, U.S. demand for the Mirai has been growing.
Germany and several other European countries, meanwhile, are setting up their own hydrogen refueling network alongside EV charging stations.
“No one sees fuel-cell (vehicles) as a better solution” to battery-electric vehicles, Hollis said during a webinar hosted by the Automotive Press Association. “They’re both needed. They both have a place.”
Patent renderings of the BMW iX5 Hydrogen reveal the SUV will mount a number of hydrogen tanks below the vehicle’s load floor — much the way modern EVs place batteries within a skateboard-like platform. The application will mount the tanks on floating bearings that would allow them to shift position in the event of a severe side-impact crash to reduce the chance of rupturing.
While BMW is rapidly moving forward towards bringing the iX5 Hydrogen to market, Porsche appears to be in a much earlier stage of development with its own hydrogen technology. Its approach is to feed the gas into a 4.4-liter twin-turbo V-8 where it would serve as a replacement for gasoline. The automaker said the approach can match the power of the conventional engine package, about 590 horsepower.
But it would have virtually none of the emissions. Hydrogen produces nothing but water vapor when used in a fuel-cell stack. Burned in an internal combustion engine there is a relatively insignificant amount of oxides of nitrogen produced.
For the moment, Porsche said it has no production plans for the hydrogen V-8 but is exploring other options.
Where things stand
The idea of burning hydrogen was something BMW tinkered with, using an even bigger V-12 in the prototype H7 sedan it field tested between 2005 to 2007. It eventually abandoned the approach. Mazda also experimented for several years with burning hydrogen in a modified rotary engine. And Toyota has been feeding the gas into a 3-cylinder version of the Corolla it’s been racing. But it has indicated no intention of taking that system into production.
Along with Toyota, Honda and Hyundai are the only other automakers which currently sell retail products using fuel-cell technology.