Many automakers, including BMW, have pledged a variety of solutions to realize carbon-neutral operation by the middle of this century. Battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) will carry the bulk of the clean-energy load going forward, but German manufacturers are not alone in believing that hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicles (FCVs) will be an essential part of the mix. Honda, Hyundai, and Toyota also share the same sentiment with their current and upcoming FCV models. After driving a new iX5 FCV prototype out in Belgium, we were left thinking that BMW might be onto something, even if that may not be the case for another decade or two.
Fewer than 100 iX5s will be built this year as part of a demonstration fleet for various regulatory bodies and marketing efforts. Only a handful will come to the United States, where — unlike central Europe and parts of Asia — hydrogen infrastructure outside California is practically nonexistent. Production includes shipping the X5 from its Spartanburg, South Carolina, birthplace to the BMW Research and Innovation Center in Munich. There, they fit a new floor to accommodate the iX5’s two cylindrical, carbon-fiber hydrogen tanks, located in its center tunnel and under the rear seat. The fuel capacity is equivalent to about 16 pounds of gaseous hydrogen pressurized to 10,150 psi, which is good for a projected range of about 310 miles according to Europe’s optimistic WTLP method (which translates to a range of about 260 miles in the US according to the EPA’s cycles). Is equal to). Unlike BEVs, it only takes a few minutes to refill the iX5 at one of the hydrogen stations around Antwerp and it will be familiar to anyone who’s ever pumped their own gas.
Under the iX5’s cargo area is a rear drive axle and current-excited synchronous motor from a BMW iX. Above this is a 400-volt lithium-ion battery with a usable capacity of approximately 2.0 kWh, which serves as a power buffer for the fuel cell to aid in acceleration and also to recover energy under braking is present. The fuel-cell stack itself resides under the hood of the iX5 and includes core cell elements from BMW’s longtime FCV partner, Toyota. BMW developed the rest of the assembly, including the stack’s cooler and humidifier, which optimize the system’s air quality, as well as a powerful compressor to push oxygen faster across the cell membranes, where the main chemical reactions take place. According to BMW, these enhancements result in both a quicker response to accelerator input and the ability to run continuously at the fuel cell’s maximum power. As is the case with all FCVs, electricity and water vapor are the only byproducts, with total system output a respectable 395 horsepower.
You’ll be able to spot the iX5 by its many blue accents and stickers running across its hood and down its sides. From behind the wheel, the experience is completely uneventful, which is the point. This vehicle drives just as you’d expect from an electric X5—smooth, quiet and refined. Its steering is pleasantly straight, and its air springs and adaptive dampers deliver well-balanced body motion. Ride comfort was good on our sample car’s 20-inch run-flat winter tires, although the standard 22-inch Pirelli P Zeros would definitely let it down a bit. Several drive modes change the iX5’s sportiness accordingly, while paddles on its steering wheel adjust the regenerative braking from little to no. Mat the right pedal, and the Bimmer accelerates with the BEV’s low-end punch, thanks to the ability of the fuel cells to simultaneously contribute energy to the traction motor and help maintain a high state for the battery. Thank You for. Traffic congestion during our drive provided us with zero opportunity for fun, but BMW’s claim of hitting 62 mph in nearly six seconds and a 115-mph top speed is entirely believable.
Along with being easier to refuel, the iX5 highlights additional benefits of FCVs over comparable BEVs. For one, fuel-cell vehicles are lighter, mostly because they require only modestly sized batteries; BMW says the iX5’s curb weight is the same as the X5 plug-in hybrid, the last of which we tested weighed 5627 pounds. Admittedly, the similarly-sized electric iX, with its larger 105.2-kWh pack, is barely heavier, but its structure uses more lightweight materials than the X5’s for a couple-hundred pounds’ worth of weight reduction. Another advantage for FCVs is that their smaller batteries mean that they require significantly fewer elements that are now in high demand for production, such as lithium, cobalt and nickel, although a small amount of platinum is needed for the fuel cell. quantity is required. The performance of fuel cells is more stable even in extreme temperatures, especially in the cold. While water emissions inside the fuel cell can indeed be a problem, BMW says the ix5 eliminates it by employing compressed air to blast the fuel out of its cells and into the drainage circuit. For those wondering what happened to BMW’s previous work on a hydrogen internal-combustion engine, technical issues and the inherent similarities between FCVs and BEVs have killed that business case.
Proponents of FCVs argue that because of their strength, especially their low mass and low need for exotic materials, fuel cells scale well in large applications, such as the use of heavy trucks and sizable storage tanks. Ships with enough space for Large industries such as steel processing are also beginning to use hydrogen, and BMW is betting that such applications will be key to the FCV’s future development. Indeed, the company’s strategy rests on hydrogen becoming more practical (and affordable) for transportation use as its popularity grows in other areas. “It’s all about timing,” says Oliver Zipse, chairman of BMW’s board of management, comparing lithium-ion batteries for BEVs to the trigger point coming from the expected widespread adoption of hydrogen.
But don’t expect to see the iX5 in your driveway anytime soon. BMW likens this FCV pilot program to its initial limited rollout of BEVs, which included the first Mini E in 2009 and the BMW Active in 2012. Even as the company develops versatile vehicle architectures to support fuel-cell powertrains, FCVs will primarily be a complementary—and potentially discounted—technology in markets less prepared to deal with the complex economics of getting hydrogen to consumers. Are. For example, ongoing supply disruptions in Europe have increased the cost of hydrogen significantly compared to gasoline and diesel fuel on a per-mile basis. Of course, none of this helps with long term sustainability unless hydrogen is produced using clean energy sources such as wind, solar and nuclear etc. In short, as compelling as BMW’s hydrogen technology may be, it is only a small piece in the energy puzzle of the future.
Mike Sutton is an editor, writer, test driver and general car nerd who contributed to car and driverReverence and irreconcilable passion for the automobile since 2008. A native Michigander from suburban Detroit, he enjoys the outdoors and complains about the weather, has a fondness for off-road vehicles, and believes in federal protection for naturally aspirated engines.