BMW is once again announcing a fleet of H2 cars. Unlike the development partner Toyota, the aim is to continue the development of fuel cell technology at small scale.
The idea of a hydrogen electric car is not new, and developers have been working on it since the 1970s. It has been said time and time again that the fuel cell in a car has been ready for series production. But apart from small series, there is hardly anything on the road so far. While Volkswagen does not see the fuel cell in the car in the long term, BMW will launch a new test fleet in two years. Not the first.
BMW announces that it will use a fleet of converted BMW X5s called “i Hydrogen Next” in 2022. A series vehicle, on the other hand, is not considered until the mid-decade. “From our point of view, hydrogen as an energy source must first be produced in sufficient quantities, with green electricity and at competitive prices,” says BMW Development Board member Klaus Fröhlich for example in long-haul heavy goods traffic. Such tractors are not expected from BMW. However, BMW’s H2 development partner Toyota recently signed a contract with its Hino truck division to build an H2-powered truck .
“In the drive system of the BMW i Hydrogen Next, the fuel cell system generates up to 125 kW of electrical energy, which is obtained from the air through the chemical reaction of hydrogen and oxygen,” explains Jürgen Guldner, Head of BMW Fuel Cell Technology. The system output of the “i Hydrogen Next” is 275 kW. Then the battery and the fuel cell deliver electricity to the drive motor at the same time.
The electrical converter, which is located in the ” i Hydrogen Next” below the fuel cell, adjusts the voltage level to that of the electrical drive and the power buffer battery. Similar to a base load power plant, the fuel cell cannot regulate its output up and down shortly enough to meet the changing performance requirements. A fixed power storage is therefore part of every fuel cell car to cover the peak demand of the drive and to be able to recover braking energy.
Two tanks with 700 bar
The two 700 bar tanks hold a total of six kilograms of hydrogen. Guldner: “This guarantees long ranges in all weather conditions. The refueling process only takes three to four minutes.” To put both in perspective: Fast refueling only works so quickly under ideal conditions. For example, if someone has filled up with H2 directly beforehand, it will take longer. We already have experience with the “large ranges”: The comparable Mercedes-Benz GLC F-Cell (test) , which we were able to test in detail, consumed about 1.5 kilograms per 100 km at the target speed. Güldner’s allusion to the weather is aimed at battery technology, in which the outside temperature is a significant parameter of the range.
BMW is currently working on flat and cheaper hydrogen pressure tanks, which should make the vehicles more competitive. To this end, BMW is cooperating with the Technical University of Dresden, the lightweight construction center in Saxony, the Munich University of Applied Sciences and the materials expert Wela. The project is funded by the Federal Ministry of Economics. Economics Minister Altmaier is a supporter of hydrogen, but admits that by 2030 around 80 percent of the envisaged hydrogen consumption would still have to be imported.
The idea of “fuel cells in cars” is currently being promoted primarily by Asian brands, and in particular by Toyota, Honda and Hyundai, after all, some of the largest car manufacturers. BMW has been working with Toyota since 2013 and has built a small fleet of BMW 5 Series GTs with the hydrogen drive of the Toyota Mirai (test) to gain experience.
VW swears by the battery drive
The relationship to hydrogen as an energy source was not always clear at Volkswagen either. While Group CEO Herbert Diess asks his followers to concentrate on battery power and to finally stop developing gas or hydrogen cars, outgoing Audi CEO Bram Schot said last year that the company wanted to get back into the fuel cell issue. Wait and see as the new Audi CEO and agreed technology expert Markus Duesmann, who will take over from Bram Schot this week in Ingolstadt.
Volkswagen brand boss Ralf Brandstetter recently gave a clear rejection of the idea of hydrogen: “For us, the fuel cell is not an option.” Hydrogen has never played a significant role at Volkswagen and its subsidiaries. After all, research was carried out for a few years with pre-series models of the Audi A7 / VW Passat (US version) which, according to their own statements, could have been brought onto the road within around two years.
However, like many other manufacturers, the salespeople in particular doubted the future of the hydrogen drive, because for many years the biggest problems of the fuel cell have not been with the car manufacturers themselves, but mote the expensive infrastructure. Building up a network of hydrogen stations in the country or even on the continent will seem unreasonable in the next few years, given the high costs associated with the special high-pressure tanks and filling systems. Especially because the fuel cell now has to fight not only against the powerful oil industry, but has a much more dangerous opponent: battery technology. A kilogram of H2 currently costs 9.50 euros – and is highly subsidized. Given the prospect of a 350 kW charging networks soon.
Four H2 cars in Europe
Toyota, Hyundai, Mercedes and Honda are currently offering four H2 models in Europe, which, however, can hardly be called series vehicles. The quantities are minuscule, the demand is low. In any case, there are usually only leasing offers. After all, apart from good driving performance and practical ranges, the vehicles offer the advantage that they can be refueled for the next 400 to 500 kilometers within a few minutes.
Problems with packaging are largely eliminated, the tanks have now been cleverly integrated. But tanks, fuel cells and batteries need so much space that crossovers like the Hyundai Nexo or the Mercedes GLC mentioned above, for example, are denied the usual all-wheel drive.
Building a large scale infrastructure is not worth it
According to the market observation agency IHS, only 150,000 fuel cell vehicles are to be sold on the world market by 2025. Not enough to build a large scale infrastructure. Nevertheless, it is also active in China: Great Wall Motors intends to develop fuel cell vehicles as part of its alternative energy roadmap. Toyota plans to deliver its fuel cell technology to the Chinese BAIC Group in the future. Foton Motor, BAIC’s commercial vehicle division, is said to be the first Chinese manufacturer to benefit from Toyota’s FCV technologies. Nevertheless, it looks more like a car that the big manufacturers try to keep up with the latest technology so that they can be pulled out of the drawer quickly enough if necessary.
The chance of a hydrogen drive for trucks is seen much better than with cars. In contrast to the charging times of battery cars, they would particularly benefit from the short filling times and long ranges, and could more easily accommodate the complex technology and large 700 bar tanks – for example behind the driver’s cab.