Is BMW’s hydrogen fuel cell technology worth pursuing?

BMW i, Interesting | October 27th, 2015 by 33
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The “Hydrogen vs Battery” vehicle argument has been raging on for quite some time. Many automakers and auto enthusiasts feel that hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars …

The “Hydrogen vs Battery” vehicle argument has been raging on for quite some time. Many automakers and auto enthusiasts feel that hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars are the best possible option for today’s market, while others feel differently and that pure battery-powered EVs are the way to go. It’s been a hot argument for quite some time and it seems like it’s an argument that the battery fans are winning.

In hydrogen’s corner stands BMW, Toyota and now Honda, while in pure battery’s corner stands Silicon Valley giant, Tesla.

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Hydrogen Fuel Cell BMW i8

While Tesla might seem outmatched, it’s actually the company winning the fight, as it produces one Model S right after another, while the other automakers have but one production hydrogen vehicle between them, the Toyota Miura. Though BMW is working on hydrogen technology and has a couple of 5 Series GT test mules running around, as well as some other hydrogen projects, and Honda is also working on its own hydrogen vehicle, called the FCEV.

Tesla, and owner Elon Musk, have been adamant that hydrogen is not the answer and that we must focus on pure battery power to create a better automotive future. BMW, Toyota and Honda, however, feel differently. They feel that battery technology simply isn’t up to par at the moment and won’t be for some time, so an alternative must be developed during the interim and they feel that hydrogen is the best alternative.

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Pure EV Tesla Model S

So who is right and which is the best course of action at the moment, hydrogen or pure EV? It’s an interesting question and isn’t as simple as that. Pure EV technology is the long-term solution and I don’t think that any automaker is disputing that. However, current battery and charging technology isn’t capable of filling the needs of the mass market and it seems that it could be quite a long time before it is. So, clearly, we need to work on batteries and get the technology to a point where they can sustain a charge long enough to accommodate ranges that petrol and diesel engine cars get now, but also must have recharge times similar to what we have now, with petrol and diesel, as well. But being that this will take quite some time, should we look into hydrogen in the interim?

Hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars are similar to EVs, except for that the batteries are charged via hydrogen fuel cells. To refuel these hydrogen fuel cells, you can pull up to a hydrogen refill station and refill them much like you would a normal internal-combustion engine car. So it takes all of five minutes to refill hydrogen and you’re back on your way. This fits our current infrastructure and would make the transition from gas to electric very easy. However, it still isn’t the long term answer, so is it worth pursuing at all?


Hydrogen Fuel Cell-powered BMW 5 Series GT spy shot

Elon Musk would have you believe no, but BMW, Toyota and Honda all seem to say yes. BMW has been an innovator in the automotive world for decades and gave us the brilliant i3 and i8. Toyota gave us the first real production hybrid, with the original Prius, and Honda gave Californians a real taste of what a mass produced hydrogen car would be like, with the FCX Clarity. So these companies know what they’re talking about. It stands to reason that if three of the biggest automakers in the world are claiming that hydrogen is the answer for right now that they might be on to something. Elon Musk is vehemently refuting such an idea but, then again, of course he would as the success of hydrogen would be bad for Tesla’s business. So it’s hard to take him too seriously, being that his shouting is most likely out of his own self-preservation.

So what do you think, is hydrogen the right-now answer, or should we scrap hydrogen and focus all of our energy on battery technology?

33 responses to “Is BMW’s hydrogen fuel cell technology worth pursuing?”

  1. WeaponZero says:

    It is no question that hydrogen is a dead end. Unlike other companies, Tesla started on a fresh start so if they thought hydrogen had a chance they would have chosen it then. Musk actually wanted the Model S to be a battery/super capacitor hybrid. But after extensive research they decided that a larger battery would be superior for the foreseeable future.

    Hydrogen is nothing more than a distraction. The automakers need a distraction to slow down transition to electric. And hydrogen is it. Toyota played the same exact game in the 90s. They told us cars like the Prius made no sense and that hydrogen cars are right around the corner. Then when Toyota caught up technologically, they scrapped the hydrogen cars and went with the Prius instead.

    Toyota found themselves in a similar situation today, they are behind technologically with lithium ion based EVs and are using hydrogen as a distraction. In the background they are buying up lithium mines.

    Each hydrogen car today costs half a million dollars, the only exception in the Mirai which is about 200k and to make it work they had to get an exemption from safety standards for limited production cars. The Type IV tank they use is also banned in China for safety reasons.

    Then there is the whole thing about the hydrogen infrastructure costing trillions. If you took every automaker and liquidated them for cash, that would not be enough for a hydrogen infrastructure.

    Not only that, what they don’t want to mention is that in California, hydrogen is going for 15$ per gallon eq. And they are also taking an hour to fill up and find the cars with only 50% range (due to pressurization issues). So much for fast fill ups. And in-home fill up is impractical like EVs due to limitations on residential compressors. Not to mention the safety issues.

    And lastly, hydrogen cars suffer from range issues, as they have less range than EVs. And due to fuel cells being close to their theoretical limits the only way to increase range would be to increase compression. Which is illegal in pretty much every country to to safety reasons. So as EVs continue to improve in range, hydrogen cars will be stuck.

    According to Toyota, a 30k-50k hydrogen car is not going to happen until 2025+. By then EVs will already have over 700 miles range on them.

  2. gerry says:

    before the year 2020 440 hydrogen filling stations along German autobahn the future is clear to me….

  3. Abdul kayira says:

    Hydrogen for now is the best because of the time it takes to refill electronic powered vehicles are irritating to charge simply because of the time it takes can you imagine to charge your car overnight for 8 hours just to get 200 kms from that long charge , electric cars are for urban areas for now because of the short range but remember urban areas are congested in case they build refilling stations to charge cars imagine how long the queue will be and how long it takes to charge the car on top of that batteries get old quickly just like the cellphone batteries the more you use them the more they slow down and can’t keep the juice on for the same amount of time as it was from new so since hydrogen takes few minutes to refill then it’s what gonna work for now until pure electric technology advance to the point of being reliable

    • WeaponZero says:

      Again, you seem to be completely confused. With an 80A home charger, you can recharge 500km in 4.5 hours. And this is all from convenience of home (You would recharge an average daily commute in minutes on a 80A charger).

      For a level 3 charger, it charges from 0 to 500km in about 1 hour. Since most charging is done at home, there is almost no queue.

      In comparison, hydrogen can take an hour to fill up 200km (due to issues keeping it pressurized properly).

      And no, the batteries in EVs do not get old quickly like cellphones. Your cellphone uses LCO chemistry and has no thermal BMS system. On top of them they are cycled poorly. To put it in perspective, if your cellphone was your car and you kept it for 2 years. 500km * 365 * 2 = 365,000 km.

      On top of that, your fuel cell and tank have a limited lifespan and increases safety risks.

      Even if a pure EV does not work for you, a PHEV would make a better interim than hydrogen.

    • CDspeed says:

      The fill up on a Toyota Mirai can cost as much as $65.00 USD, and the entire fuel system has to be replaced as it has an expiration date to prevent people from driving with worn out tanks that could rupture with age.

    • steven75 says:

      It costs about $2 million to build an H2 station. Who is going to pay for those? It’s not like your going to see every gas station turned into an H2 station anytime soon.

      However it is trivially easy to find a power outlet. Those are already more common than gas stations.

      • Erik Alapää says:

        Hydrogen is far more scalable than batteries, it can be used for heavy trucks as well. The fueling stations must be built if we want to get rid of gasoline and diesel vehicles.

    • cros13 says:

      It can also take up to 15 minutes to fill a h2 tank (ref: the ix35 fuel cell crossovers fill up time).

      H2 currently costs substantially petrol/diesel cost

      The people objecting to EV charging times and range in general have never driven an EV. They have no direct experience of living with one.

      95%+ of drivers daily use is easily covered by home charging. It takes less of your time and is far more convenient than visiting a petrol station.

      Typically and ICE driver has this routine a couple of times a week:

      1. drive to the filling station – 10-20 minutes round trip

      2. queue for the pump – 2-3 minutes

      3. fill the tank – 5-6 minutes

      4. queue to pay – 5-6 minutes

      Total time: 22-35 minutes of your life

      Total cost per month in IRL for Toyota Avensis 2L Diesel with 5500km monthly mileage: €340

      Here’s what I need to do with my EV:

      1. Arrive home

      2. Plug it in – 10 seconds

      Total time: 10 seconds

      Total cost per month in IRL for BMW i3 with 5500km monthly mileage: €15 – €30 depending on use of public charging

      Expected “life” of the i3’s battery (which means time to 70% capacity, not time to replacement): 20 years

      On long trips I rapid charge at 50kW chargers, 0-80% in 20 minutes, I stop just as often as in my ICE for: Lunch/coffee and bathroom breaks.
      There are rapid chargers every 25km on every major route in my country, and no point on the map more than 40km from a rapid charger.

      • jimmy says:

        “Here’s what I need to do with my EV:

        1. Arrive home

        2. Plug it in – 10 seconds

        Total time: 10 seconds”

        3. Charge battery – 9 hours

        Total Time: 10 seconds + 9 hours

        • cros13 says:

          Actually charge time from 0-100% is 3 1/2 hours on my home charger (230v 32A).

          Two additional factors:

          1. you are almost never charging from completely empty.
          2. I do this thing called sleeping… often takes about 8 hours.

          Your actual time and attention is taken up by the process of fueling your ICE. My EV takes the 10 seconds I spend to plug it in.

          Do yourself a favor, rent/borrow an EV for a week and come back with an informed opinion.
          Pretty much every EV driver has owned and lived with a traditional ICE vehicle. And practically no ICE drivers have owned/lived with an EV.
          Why do you seem to think your uninformed opinion is the equal of my informed opinion?

          • Cthugha says:

            “Why do you seem to think your uninformed opinion is the equal of my informed opinion?”
            “It’s a superior powertrain, end of story.”
            Smug Alert!

            Why don’t you, your PEV and your “informed opinion” try living in an apartment (like ~50% do), without access to charging your car at home. Or even without a permanent parking place (quite common in cities). Also, charging at work is still VERY rare.

            And try living with your PEV only, no other cars (rentals are very expensive in many parts of the world).

          • cros13 says:

            Live in an apartment – check
            EV is my only car – check

            I have a space in the underground car park beneath my building and my charger is on the pillar next to it.
            This summer alone I’ve driven from my home in Dublin to Berlin and London entirely on electric power without an issue.

            The only reason you’d need work charging is if your commute was longer than the cars range, and 150-200km+ commutes are rare in any part of the globe.

            I might be smug but that doesn’t mean I’m not right. Get some actual experience of driving an EV instead of regurgitating someone elses opinions on how they work or what they’re like to live with.

          • Matt Stokes says:

            It’s somewhat anecdotal though…

            I’d probably only have to plug in an i3 once a week for my day to day, but so far this year I’ve clocked up over 6300 miles on road trips for pleasure alone, including from my home roughly in the middle of the UK, to the Nürburgring in Germany, Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium, Zandvoort in the Netherlands, Le Mans in France and even Knockhill in Scotland (all 700-1000 mile round-trips) – and whereas I’ve got no problem at all with agreeing that EV for my day to day presents no issue at all, I’d totally disagree that for the road trip stuff I’d have had no issue… and by no issue, I mean not had unnecessary delays and have to go out of my way, or plan ahead just for fueling requirements. Sure, at a recorded average of about 53mpg it’s not come for free, but the cost is easily rationalised given the confidence and ease it facilitates, and the fact it’s never been the significant cost.

            My point is, most people can justify or ridicule EV’s based on their own wants and needs, and that’s fine, because many of us have different lifestyles and locations… but to announce it as the superior option, with no question, is pretty self-centric and blinkered attitude.

  4. Sou-Zem says:

    There is a concern about greenhouse gases.
    The only by-product (so they say) of a hydrogen powered car, is water vapor.
    Isn’t water vapor a greenhouse gas ? If it is, how many cars would it take to affect the environment ?
    I have yet to see the answer to that question.

  5. steven75 says:

    Hydrogen cars are less efficient (and will never be as efficient as a battery EV–physics doesn’t lie!), more dangerous, far more costly up front, and more costly than gas to refill, and far less infrastructure (now and anytime in the near future) than either gas or a battery EV.

    Why waste time and money with them?

    • mckillio says:

      I don’t get it either. Why use electricity to create hydrogen when you can just use electricity? The only positive for hydrogen is the fast fill time but I think that’s a moot point between many people being able to charge at home and battery technology improving.

    • Erik Alapää says:

      FUD and bullshit, as is most of the ‘facts’ put forward by the battery huggers. Hydrogen fuel cells combined with a small, cheap, light battery for city driving (and of course, the battery should be plug-in charged) is THE solution. End of discussion.

  6. CDspeed says:

    Electric cars work on a power source we’ve had access to for our entire lives, there is no wait anyone could buy one today and just use it. Electric cars also cost very little to fuel, and have extremely low maintenance required. Most of the time with my i3 I’ve charged at home so I’ve had no fuel stops as part of my weekly routine, and so far my car has not required any service. Hydrogen cars seem purpose built to keep people paying for fuel and maintenance just like we do with gasoline cars, but the electric car can drastically cut those costs. Sure you could argue that batteries are expensive, but that is changing, and improving. Hydrogen however is more expensive then gasoline, and something I’ve found out is the hydrogen tanks have an expiration date based on the date they were manufactured. Like any other pressurized tank the expansion and contraction causes the tanks to wear out, so after a set date the car has to have its entire fueling system replaced or it’s deemed hazardous.

    • Matt Stokes says:

      Imagine in principle if you had an i3 ReX, except you didn’t have to put in fossil fuels, and instead of emitting the gases associated with that, it emitted water. You’d get your range, without resorting to bigger, heavier, nastier batteries, and you’d be avoiding most of the things you and your customers are taxed on. It’s a perverse way of looking at it, but I can see how HFCV’s might help the manufacturers tick the bureaucratic boxes, even if it doesn’t give the most practical or best automotive solution.

      • CDspeed says:

        A bigger battery isn’t a bad thing, and you have to keep in mind that the battery is still evolving. I’d rather give the electric car time to grow then jump into a technology that keeps me paying at the pump. If I had to pick one thing as being an influence on buying my i3 it would be charging. Like gasoline filling up on hydrogen means going to a gas station to get fuel. With my electric car, the chargers are in the places I intended to go in the first place, so there are no little side trips for fuel.

        • Matt Stokes says:

          I’m not arguing about the relevance of the limitations of EV’s to individuals, I appreciate they work for some, and not for others. However, being able to generate your own electricity on the fly, for your e-motors allows for greater freedom. And, Hydrogen allows you to do that in a ‘cleaner’ way than Petrol/Diesel – at least as far as the car manufacturers need to worry about.

          Like I said, I’m not saying it’s the best way of doing it… but on paper it sounds like a good idea.

          • iDriver says:

            Let’s not forget that “generating electricity on the fly” is cutting some corners. In reality, the fuel cell stack needs the help of a battery (yes, even Toyota’s Mirai!) to buffer sufficient energy for acceleration. In case of the Mirai, they put in a very small battery (1 kWh) and the results are there: slow acceleration, not the typical EV feeling and lots of noise from overwork by the fuel cell stack that needs to run at maximum capacity all the time. Very annoying according to reviewers. If you want to avoid that, then a decent battery of 15-20 kWh (like Honda and Hyundai are doing) is needed to get some decent acceleration (still not great though). If you really want ‘sheer driving pleasure’, then an even bigger battery will be needed. So, what is the hydrogen-hype trying to achieve here – build a BEV and add a fuel cell stack just to make sure you have to visit hydrogen stations after every 400 km on the odometer? That is several times per month if not per week. With a decent BEV battery, you only have to visit a charging station a couple of times per year, if and when you do long stretches of more than 400 km in one day. Most normal people take a bio break or stop to eat something after 400 km of driving, if not earlier. So again no time lost to charge a BEV. It is about time that the incorrect comparison of range figures between ICE/FCEV and BEV stops in the articles because it only shows lack of real experience with these cars by the author.

          • CDspeed says:

            Depends on what paper you read, and they really can’t do everything as well as an electric car. Here is an article that answered a question I had as to why we’re not seeing high performance hydrogen cars.

          • Matt Stokes says:

            I don’t disagree with anything that article said, please understand, I’m not trying to make a case as to why hydrogen is better than EV, merely why as an idea it’s something that’s being pursued.

  7. […] recently spoke about the auto industry’s argument between hydrogen and battery power. There are several automakers, spearheaded by Tesla Motors, who are pushing for pure battery […]

  8. whateverdude says:

    Lol…I bet this is Toyota technology under that BMW badge…Remember the agreement from 2 years ago?

  9. […] took quite a bit of flak from the EV-loyal crowd when it said that it would be heavily investing in hydrogen fuel. Most EV fans tend to think that hydrogen fuel is a waste of time and money and that those […]

  10. […] Whether BMW is bringing an i5 first, followed by the i6, still remains to be seen, but the next two years should bring some light over BMW’s plans, whether those are electric or hydrogen. […]

  11. Hydrogen economy is not only important but without hydrogen it’s possible that we are going to face the same of what happen to the Dinosaurs few hundred millions years ago. These Dinosaurs disappear mysteriously and were buried underground.

    Who is the real culprit responsible for global warming?

    Global warming and climate change are terms for the observed century-scale rise in the average temperature of the Earth’s climate system and its related effects. Scientific understanding of global warming is increasing. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported in 2014 that scientists were more than 95% certain that global warming is being caused mostly by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases and other human (anthropogenic) activities. On 12 November 2015, NASA scientists reported that human-made carbon dioxide (CO2) continues to increase above levels not seen in hundreds of thousands of years: currently, about half of the carbon dioxide released from the burning of fossil fuels remains in the atmosphere and is not absorbed by vegetation and the oceans. Do not forget that during fossil fuel combustion ( Gasoline and diesel ) that not only the good carbon dioxide but also small amounts of acidic gases such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are also produced. We are sure that the plant leaves use the process of photosynthesis to take carbon dioxide from the air and turns it to the oxygen that we breathe and the food that we eat. This means more carbon dioxide in the air is good for the environment because more oxygen is produced and more food. This process of photosynthesis becomes very slow or inhibited in the presence of the bad and ugly acidic gases ( I mean Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides ). So the poor and good carbon dioxide stay in the atmosphere much longer and causes Global Warming. Basically there is no life on earth without carbon dioxides in air.
    There is no such thing as carbon tax. It should be sulfur tax. The funds generated by such sulfur tax should be given to companies who are dealing with hydrogen.

  12. Lorenzo Rodriguez says:

    I get it. The hydrogen infrastructure isn’t there, but battery technology isn’t there, either. A lot of money is being poured into R&D, but I don’t think battery technology will be there even 10 years from now. Aside from the recharge time, the cost of replacement is a huge issue. Sure you have the Tesla Model S, which gets fantastic range, but who wants to shell out $45,000 to replace the battery pack in 8-10 years? If I can buy a hydrogen generator for my house and store the fuel on-site, is it really that important if there isn’t a hydrogen fueling station anywhere near me?

    • mckillio says:

      What do you mean battery technology isn’t there? Where is there? Tesla batteries do not cost $45k, it’s less than half that and gets cheaper every year, the gigafactory will bring the price down even more. Besides that, it’s not as if you won’t get some compensation for exchanging your battery and the one you’ll get in return will be much, much better and much cheaper than what you originally paid.

  13. […] no secret that BMW is fond of hydrogen fuel cells as an alternative to gasoline or pure battery electricity. The Bavarian brand’s fondness of […]

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