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It's about utilising all instruments to decarbonise, the firm tells us, as it finally sends its gleaming test fleet of hydrogen-powered X5s out onto the road.

02 Mar 2023

BMW's recently intensifying push for fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), the firm says, is not too dissimilar to its relationship with battery-electric vehicles (BEVs). 

While most think of the affable i3 as the torchbearer for Munich's electromobility-push, its love affair with electrons started much earlier - more than four decades prior, in fact. 

The BMW 1602E helped ferry officials and serve as a support car at the 1972 Munich Olympics
In the 1972 Munich Olympics, the four-cylinder engine of a normal-looking 1602 Sedan had been swapped out for 12 lead-acid batteries and a 32kW electric motor. A range of approximately 60km meant the car had just about enough juice to cover the entire 42km marathon route for which it was serving as the safety vehicle.

"When we look at history, it's always a matter of having the right technology at the right point in time, because all these things have to come together," Dr. Juergen Guldner, General Program Manager of Hydrogen Technology, reminds us at the international media drive of the BMW iX5 Hydrogen.

"Technology on its own doesn't really take off unless everything put together works."

The pressure of climate change has only been growing incrementally, so having to leave the combustion engine behind was always a matter of time. But for BEVs, what proved to be the finger that flipped the switch was the lithium-ion battery. Now, BMW believes similar forces are acting in favour for FCEVs.

The right time for a different path of electrification?

FCEVs, like the iX5 Hydrogen, are already suitable for daily use on our roads
The technological argument for hydrogen power should not have to be disputed anymore. Production-ready FCEVs have already existed for a decade or so, and - provided you live in the right part of the world - can even be purchased and owned for daily use.

As with every piece of technology, however, refinements are always welcome.

On that front, regarding storage specifically, Juergen tells us, "With 700-bar technology being mastered… we have a technology that is really workable - it's easy, it's safe, it's doable." (At '700-bar', compressed gaseous hydrogen is stored at 700 times the atmospheric pressure.) The iX5 Hydrogen's two CFRP tanks can hold 6kg of hydrogen, giving it a commendable range of up to 504km.

The iX5 Hydrogen's two CFRP tanks can hold up 6kg of hydrogen, for a range of up to 504km
Still, the bigger question that had plagued hydrogen power all along - and which arguably still does today - is whether the world around is ready. As we've mentioned, it doesn't matter how polished an FCEV is if hydrogen refuelling infrastructure simply isn't sufficiently widespread.

With regards to the energy source at least, developments are on their way - and from every front possibly imaginable.

Just in December last year, the Biden-Harris administration announced it was committing $750 million in funding to the acceleration of clean hydrogen technologies. 

Territories like the U.S.A., Europe, and China are looking to green hydrogen for their energy transitions
Back in Europe, the European Commission's REPowerEU Plan - an energy management strategy created in direct response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine - also explicitly highlights renewable hydrogen as key to the long-term diversification of its energy mix.

And other major powers like China and Japan have also laid out plans within the decade to accelerate investments in related facilities for production.

But most importantly, you won't need to look beyond our very own borders to see the relevancy of hydrogen power. In October last year, Singapore's Ministry of Trade and Industry unveiled a 58-page National Hydrogen Strategy, detailing how and why the energy source will be core to the nation's decarbonisation strategy. 

Hydrogen infrastructure used for heavy industry requires minimal modification to be applied to passenger vehicles too
Owing especially to our involvement in the maritime and aviation industries, low-carbon hydrogen will be pivotal in replacing fossil fuels within our power mix. The ministry believes the energy source could supply up to half our power needs by 2050, which is when it aims to reach net zero carbon emissions.

It is precisely within this larger international conversation that the iX5 Hydrogen arrives - and also within which BMW intends to embed its persisting efforts with FCEVs. 

During a hydrogen refuelling demonstration for the SUV, we're told that the same station it's just tapped on also boasts the ability to service hydrogen-powered ships and trucks. Although most global efforts now more explicitly target heavy industry with clean hydrogen (battery-electric power will simply not suffice in these arenas), the fact that facilities require little modification to also serve passenger vehicles bodes well for them. 

About those criticisms of hydrogen power…

One criticism weathered by FCEVs is that they are less energy efficient than BEVs (BMW iX pictured)
Nonetheless, while there is more unanimity in opinion on the utility of hydrogen power in decarbonising heavy industry, debates still swirl around whether the same benefits apply to passenger vehicles.

Amidst the ambiguity, one of the larger criticisms levelled at FCEVs is that they are less energy-efficient compared to BEVs.

In the energy transition, hydrogen will only make sense if it is sustainably produced. And among the multitude of hydrogen production methods available to us today, 'green' (carbon-neutral) hydrogen is currently arrived at through the method of electrolysis - when water is split into hydrogen and oxygen using electricity generated from renewable sources. 

Platinum - the core material in fuel cell production - is more accessible, and also easier to recycle
On the other hand, however, the very electricity responsible for producing green hydrogen could actually charge up a BEV directly. This doesn't even take into account the fact that the majority of hydrogen production today isn't low-carbon yet.

But in focusing so much on energy efficiency, Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, CEO of Hydrogen Europe believes we're overlooking another pressing issue: Resource scarcity.

"Are we able to have access to critical raw materials, and are we able to recycle it? That becomes more of an issue than efficiency," he opines. "Because in the end, if you concentrate very much on energy efficiency, but you don't have the raw materials, [and] you don't have the electricity, what do you do?"

It is important that life cycle analyses are taken into account when talking BEVs and FCEVs 
Jorgo points out that the accessibility of lithium and cobalt - both necessary for battery production - will not always be guaranteed.

Comparatively, platinum - the main raw material for fuel cells - already has a high recycling rate, and should see its supply boosted further as combustion engines are phased out. On the whole, FCEV batteries also only require 10% of the critical raw materials that BEV batteries do.

In addressing the issue that hydrogen-powered vehicles are, additionally, still far more costly to produce today than BEVs, BMW also believes the benefits reaped by scaling up production will be two-fold. 

Past a certain point, the cost of ramping up the number of charging stations may start to increase non-linearly
As with other technologies, economies of scale promise to make FCEV-manufacturing cheaper over time. Just as crucially, however, BMW believes the estimated linear cost of increasing infrastructure to support FCEVs (hydrogen refuelling stations, in other words) to be more promising from a financial standpoint against the non-linear cost of increasing the number of charging stations - a task that will become more complex over time.

"It goes up," Juergen cautions about the financial investment. "Because then you have to start upgrading the grid behind it, you have to bring the electricity to the chargers… you need transformers and all that. And that's when it gets more and more expensive."

The power of choice (a.k.a. The bottom line for customers)

The use case for FCEVs is stronger in colder climates, where a BEV's range diminishes quicker
The figure of over 215,000 all electric BMWs and MINIs sold in 2022 should speak for itself, but just to be extra clear, BMW isn't against BEVs. (One of the slides presented by Jorgo depicts two lovers in separate cars, leaning out to kiss each other in the middle. The subtitle: "Fuel cell and battery in love".)

Rather, on the long and twisty road of decarbonisation, its focus is still on offering choice. The advantages of FCEVs should stand out more strongly to certain groups; BMW believes refuelling (refilling) times will always outpace recharging times, and FCEVs are apparently more range-resilient than BEVs in colder climates. Furthermore, the firm doesn't expect the dream scenario of one charging station-to-one car to be realised so quickly. 

With pairings the like iX3 and X3, BMW has shown its ability to fit different drivetrains within the same template - to commercial success
A brief glance away from the future, and back (again) towards the firm's history, also substantiates BMW's broader goal. 

With recent pairings like the BMW iX3/X3 and i4/4 Series Gran Coupe, BMW has shown it is capable of utilising the same template for different drivetrains, including full BEVs, PHEVs, petrol engines and diesel engines. It wants to add FCEVs into that portfolio.

"We changed the architectures such that we are independently able to produce powertrains and vehicles, and kind of mix and match. That kind of flexibility allows us to react to any market demand - any change in market demand," Juergen explains. "We're thinking to do the same thing with the fuel cell, because a hydrogen car, first off, is an electric car."

Regarding its electromobility strategy, BMW believes FCEVs are a promising second leg to stand on
Don't write BMW off as being smitten with hydrogen to the point of idealising it. After a brief stab at hydrogen combustion engines with the BMW Hydrogen 7, it's written them off (for now), citing concerns with efficiency and practicality.

But the final point of decarbonisation doesn't change. And what might help accelerate that process is if more paths are offered.

"It fulfils all different kinds of needs if you offer choice, rather than saying 'This is the [only] solution, take it or leave it'", Juergen tells us. In some way, "This is our second leg to stand on," he says in reference to FCEVs, "on the long walk towards the energy transition."

Here are a few other stories which may interest you! 

What's next for better, cleaner energy? A quick rundown of everything we should watch out for in 2023

FROM THE ELiXIR OF i: Luxury finds new meaning with BMW's electrification

BMW flagships: The circularity of luxury, today and beyond

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