BMW’s model line-up includes a burgeoning range of electric vehicles, but the Bavarian manufacturer isn’t putting all its ionised eggs into the EV basket. Hydrogen is still very much on the agenda.
The company released the world's first hydrogen-burning car, the limited-production Hydrogen 7, in 2005. Whereas that was a combustion-powered offering, the latest iX5 Hydrogen model is an X5-derived fuel-cell electric vehicle that delivers a touring range of 504km, accelerates from zero to 100kph in less than six seconds and has a top speed of 185kph.
Fuelling the future
The iX5 Hydrogen is particularly relevant to our region as the six countries of the GCC have unveiled ambitious plans for a hydrogen economy. High solar yields and abundant land provide excellent conditions to produce hydrogen from renewable electricity. The clean fuel can offer more than mere diversification for the Gulf; it can allow countries to maintain economic growth in a decarbonised world.
The iX5 Hydrogen has, for now, been conceived purely for a pilot programme. Only 100 vehicles will be released initially for demonstration and trial by various target groups, so there’s no date or price tag attached to it yet. Nevertheless, Juergen Guldner, head of BMW’s hydrogen fuel-cell technology department, says if a business case eventuated for the vehicle, it could be offered for sale at a similar price to an equivalent BEV.
The iX5’s hydrogen fuel-cell stack is housed under the bonnet, and the individual fuel cells for it were sourced from Toyota (the two car makers have been technology partners in fuel-cell drive systems since 2013). The fuel cell generates 125kW (170hp) of electricity via a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, with water vapour being the only emission.
The middle section of the car houses the two hydrogen tanks, and incorporated with the rear axle is an electric motor that’s essentially the same as that used in the BMW iX. Perched above the motor is a lithium-ion “power battery” that’s about 5 per cent of the size of what you’d find in a conventional EV.
The reason the power battery is small is because its sole job is to pump up peak system output to 401hp, rather than to store charge for extended durations. It’s replenished on the go by the 170hp fuel-cell (especially while coasting or braking), so you always have massive grunt at your disposal.
The two hydrogen tanks, which are stashed beneath the passenger cell, store a total of 6kg of gas (pressurised at 700 times that of normal atmospheric pressure), and are fabricated from layers of carbon-fibre-reinforced plastic. During development, the tanks were immersed in fire, shot at with live ammunition and subjected to various other strength and integrity tests to ensure their safety.
Guldner says even if one of the tanks were to rupture, they’ve been designed in such a way that the pressurised hydrogen would dissipate slowly and harmlessly — so there’s no need to worry about cinematic explosions or fireballs.
First impressions on firing up the iX5 Hydrogen, which The National is test-driving in Antwerp on invitation from the brand, is that it feels remarkably normal — there’s no difference in the user experience to what you’d expect from a contemporary EV. The hydrogen fuel-cell stack and the single rear-axle electric motor operate silently, so only a trace of wind and road noise permeates into the cabin.
BMW quotes a 0 to 100kph split of under six seconds, and our assessment is that this figure sounds about right. The 2.45-tonne leaps away from standstill when you floor the throttle and there’s plenty of overtaking urge instantly available whenever you need it.
What’s more, the iX5 Hydrogen steers accurately and doesn’t wallow and roll excessively if you hustle it across winding roads. The air suspension also serves up a supple ride.
The iX5 Hydrogen makes sense on many levels. For starters, the vehicle’s power battery is significantly smaller than what you’d find in an EV, which means it requires less than one-twentieth of the lithium, nickel and cobalt to be extracted from the Earth for its production.
In addition, refuelling stops are brief and easy (it takes just three to four minutes to fill the tanks), so it’s much better-suited for long trips and hassle-free daily driving than an EV, where you need to plan around comparatively lengthy recharging stops.