Hydrogen fuel cell EVs have been slow to catch on with the US car-buying public. Nevertheless, the domestic auto industry appears to be prepping for a future that includes fuel cells. Last week, Honda announced plans for a new fuel cell SUV based on its popular CR-V crossover, and BMW announced that it will use a base vehicle supplied by its factory in Spartenburg, North Carolina, to build a test fleet of its new iX5 fuel cell EV in Germany. Wait, was Toyota right about hydrogen this whole time?
The US Hydrogen Fuel Cell EV Market Is A Tough Nut To Crack
Much of the activity in the hydrogen fuel cell EV area is currently centered around trucks, locomotives, construction equipment, and other heavy duty use cases where hydrogen has the advantage of quick fuel-up and a relatively compact footprint compared to battery packs.
Toyota introduced a fuel cell sedan to California back in 2015, called the Mirai FCEV. It’s been a tough cell ever since, but the company is still determined to raise the profile of hydrogen-powered mobility.
Last year, Toyota launched a combustion-based racing venture aimed at promoting hydrogen as a high performance fuel, and last week the company announced that it will lead a UK consortium aimed at producing a fuel cell pickup truck.
Another glimmer of hope came from a Toyota driver survey last month, in which more than 90% of Mirai owners said they use the fuel cell car as their primary household vehicle. For Toyota, that indicates drivers are confident about the car’s range and the availability of hydrogen fuel stations, even though the station network is still in the build-out phase.
Meanwhile, Honda has been holding the door open for fuel cell EVs in the US. Last year the company halted production of its Clarity sedan in favor of an SUV model under its CR-V line, slated for production in 2024. Honda also has been collaborating with GM and the US Army on hydrogen-powered vehicles.
BMW Tests Fuel Cell EV Waters With New iX5
Honda’s newly announced plan to manufacture a hydrogen version of the CR-V at its Marysville, Ohio factory is another indication that the fuel cell EV winds are shifting in the US. The question is, how fast are they shifting?
BMW’s answer appears to be that the winds are shifting slowly. The company has been cold-testing its iX5 Hydrogen “sports activity vehicle” in the upper reaches of Sweden, near the Arctic Circle. The company is focusing attention on car buyers who are eager to adopt zero emission mobility but have misgivings — unfounded or not — about the performance of battery electric vehicles, especially in cold climates.
Last week, BMW Group announced that it will manufacture a limited series of the BMW iX5 Hydrogen model, to serve as a test fleet at its Munich Research and Innovation Centre.
“The first ever Sports Activity Vehicle (SAV) featuring hydrogen fuel cell technology has already completed an intensive programme of testing under demanding conditions during the development phase and will now be used as a technology demonstrator for locally carbon-free mobility in selected regions from spring 2023,” BMW explained in a press release.
BMW Still Hearts Battery EVs, Too
Part of BMW’s aim is to diversify the zero emission supply chain beyond the cobalt, lithium, nickel, and other materials needed for EV batteries. BMW also foresees application in areas where building an EV charging network is impractical, though the company emphasized that it remains committed to battery-electric technology as well.
“We are certain that hydrogen is set to gain significantly in importance for individual mobility and therefore consider a mixture of battery and fuel cell electric drive systems to be a sensible approach in the long term,” elaborated Frank Weber, who is a BMW executive responsible for Development.
“Our BMW iX5 Hydrogen test fleet will allow us to gain new and valuable insights, enabling us to present customers with an attractive product range once the hydrogen economy becomes a widespread reality,” he added.
If that attractive product range includes the US market, the iX5 Hydrogen could have a leg up through its connection with the BMW Group plant in Spartanburg, which provided the BMW X5 base for the iX5 Hydrogen. The Munich shop took over from there, outfitting the base with a new floor assembly to fit two hydrogen tanks under the rear seating area.
The Case For Green Hydrogen
There being no such thing as a free lunch, zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell EVs are only as clean as the hydrogen supply chain. The primary source of hydrogen today is natural gas, along with other fossil resources. On its website, BMW points out that continuing to rely on fossil sources will have a “knock-on” effect on the carbon footprint of hydrogen-powered cars.
The company also notes that the emerging green hydrogen industry offers a solution. The focus is on electrolysis systems that use an electrical current to push hydrogen gas from water, with the electricity provided by wind, solar, and other renewables. However, there is a layer of complication to be resolved.
“…one disadvantage of producing hydrogen is the losses during electrolysis. The overall efficiency in the ‘power to vehicle drive’ energy chain is therefore only half the level of a BEV [battery-electric vehicle],” BMW notes.
The energy loss issue is familiar argument against the mainstreaming of fuel cell EVs, but BMW also has an answer to that.
“…hydrogen can be produced at times when there is an oversupply of electricity from renewable energy sources when the wind or solar energy currently produced is not otherwise used. The potential for this is huge,” BMW emphasizes. The company also takes note of opportunities for recovering and upcycling waste hydrogen from industrial processes.
That rights the FCEV energy loss balance sheet, but only partly. Transporting and storing hydrogen are also energy-sucking endeavors, even more so than dealing with gasoline. BMW’s answer to that is a decentralized, distributed network of electrolysis facilities.
More Good News For Fuel Cell EV Fans
To take on the hydrogen transportation, storage and supply issues all at once, earlier this year the US Department of Energy launched a program to establish a network of new hydrogen hubs around the country.
Initial funding for the program comes from the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which requires natural gas to play a role in at least two of the hubs. However, most of the focus is on green hydrogen, which means that states across the US can compete for funding whether or not they have access to fossil resources.
Keep an eye open for activity in the Northeast, where Connecticut’s early interest in the FCEV area could pay off through a hydrogen hub collaboration with New York and several other states in the region.
In an interesting twist, Tesla had an opportunity to get in on the fuel cell action back in 2010, when it received a $50 million investment from Toyota aimed at producing an electric version of the popular RAV4. However, the relationship soon went south, and Toyota severed ties altogether in 2017.
That may or may not have had something to do with a 2013 episode in which someone reportedly called “bull—t” on fuel cells at a Tesla event in Germany. Evidently that advice was not taken up by Toyota, Honda, BMW, and a growing number of innovators and stakeholders in the mobility sector.
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Photo: BMW iX5 Hydrogen to join fuel cell EV roster.
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