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The rise of the hydrogen-powered car

Mar 28 2016 08:00
Glenda Williams
Dr Merten Jung, head of BMW fuel cell development.

Dr Merten Jung, head of BMW fuel cell development. (Picture supplied).

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The race to produce the first road-going fuel-cell powered vehicle has already been won, with Toyota launching its Mirai hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle last year. Now the rest of the major motor manufacturers are scrambling to be next in line. 

In BMW’s line-up, the one missing powertrain is the fuel cell. But scrambling is something that BMW appears not to be doing.

While there may be a perception that BMW is lagging its competitors in the development of this alternative-fuel vehicle, the German carmaker appears to be less concerned with being among the front-runners than it is about a hydrogen-powered vehicle that it believes can be viably marketed to its customers.  

In the development of a road-ready fuel-cell vehicle, BMW is collaborating with Toyota to develop the best possible fuel cell. Its shared target for the second fuel-cell version (the first currently in the Mirai) is one that is ready by 2020.

BMW also has to make sure its powertrain is sporty enough for its customers so, in co-operation with Toyota, it is focusing on getting more power out of similar components.  

Bringing down the cost of components

“Our goal is to develop components and have them ready for serious production in 2020. First, we have to do our homework with the components and bring down the costs. Then, increase the performance and reduce the weight so that in the end we have a very appealing product for the customer. But the main focus is to reduce the cost to be able to offer the car at a decent price,” says Dr Merten Jung, head of BMW fuel cell development. 

The cost curves for electric and fuel-cell vehicles are similar, says Jung. “But eventually there will be a crossing point when the hydrogen vehicle becomes cheaper because when you want to increase the range of a fuel-cell vehicle, you just increase the size of the tank.” 

One way to lower costs is to reduce the amount of platinum used in the fuel-cell stack, which, according to Jung, is one of the costliest components. The goal is to have a similar amount of platinum to that of the catalyst in combustion engines – up to 10g – a target that will probably be reached around 2025. 

Right now BMW says its hydrogen-powered car is still way too heavy, a few 100kg heavier than a conventional combustion car. But come production, the story on weight is likely to be a very different one. 

The fuel-cell car already benefits from the technology that exists with BMW’s electric vehicles. “We will profit from our i-project, not only from the electric powertrain, but also the carbon technology,” says Jung. (BMW’s i-project is one that focuses on developing lightweight, eco-friendly vehicles.)

And the drivetrain is ready. “The drivetrain is not that different to a battery electric [vehicle’s]; the electric motors, gearbox and power electronics are basically the same – just a different tank, smaller battery and the fuel cell to convert the hydrogen.”  

Rolling out infrastructure

What is critical for the hydrogen-powered car is infrastructure. “With a battery electric [vehicle], even if infrastructure is not in place, you can still charge the vehicle at home. With hydrogen you need infrastructure. That is a must,” says Jung.  

The good thing, Jung tells finweek, is that not many fuel stations are needed to have an initial network that can cover a whole country. With one hydrogen station you can deliver a lot of hydrogen.


BMW’s hydrogen station at its plant in South Carolina, USA, provides 1 000kg of hydrogen per day delivering 100 000km of driving.  

“The advantage of the hydrogen gas station is that you can take a conventional petrol station and just add the hydrogen component to it.” It’s a cost that Jung estimates to be around €700 000.  

By 2018, BMW will have around 100 hydrogen refuelling stations up and running in Germany. Increasing this by a further 300 spread out across the region is also an option once more vehicles come into the market. 

But will this alternative fuel variant, the hydrogen-powered car, usurp the electric vehicle’s position as the king of eco-mobility on the road?  

“We are preparing for both; the two will co-exist.” Each, says Jung, has its place in a zero-emission world; the electric vehicle (EV) that is less dependent on infrastructure but has a shorter range, and the infrastructure-dependent hydrogen-powered car with its significantly longer range and shorter refuelling time. 

BMW may not be among the first vehicle manufacturers to put one of these alternative-fuel- powered cars on the road, holding out for what appears to be a more a customer-focused premium road-going hydrogen-powered car. But hydrogen fuel-cell technology, as it stands today, is too heavy and too expensive.   

In the end it boils down to bringing down weight and cost, and deploying infrastructure to be able to viably market these cars to motorists. Come the time, longer-distance-loving South African motorists could be quite receptive to this alternatively powered vehicle whose range will give them no cause for anxiety.

*Glenda Williams was a guest of BMW SA at the 86th Geneva International Motor Show.  

This article originally appeared in the 24 March 2016 edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.

geneva auto show  |  bmw  |  vehicles  |  fuel  |  toyota  |  electric car
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