Don’t let $2 gas fool you, the alternative fuel revolution is well under way. A vast majority of car makers offer at least one hybrid model, and the number of electric cars on the market grows annually. However, hydrogen technology is still lagging behind because it’s plagued by an array of setbacks, including an underdeveloped infrastructure.
Digital Trends sat down with Merten Jung, BMW’s head of fuel cell development, to get insight on where the technology stands today, what will change in the coming years, and when we can expect to see a hydrogen-powered car in a BMW showroom.
Digital Trends: BMW sells the all-electric i3 and several plug-in hybrid models. Why are you investing in fuel cell technology?
Merten Jung: Because a fuel cell drivetrain combines zero-emissions mobility with the fast refueling time that’s needed for long-distance driving. Moving forward, electric vehicles will have longer ranges thanks to advances in battery technology, but the refueling time won’t be competitive with that of a hydrogen-powered model. It takes about three to five minutes to top up a hydrogen tank, and then you’re set to go. We expect that battery-electric vehicles and fuel cell-electric vehicles will co-exist in the future, and plug-in hybrids are a simply a temporary solution until we get to that point.
The biggest issue currently facing fuel cell vehicles is arguably the lack of an infrastructure. How will you overcome that?
You can’t tell the difference between an EV and a hydrogen-powered car when you’re behind the wheel.
There are initiatives in various countries to set up an infrastructure. In Germany, the government has plans to install 100 hydrogen stations by 2018, which is sufficient to set up an initial network, and there will be up to 400 additional stations by 2023; the final number will depend on how many hydrogen-powered vehicles are on the road by then. The advantage is that you can convert existing gas stations to hydrogen stations, so you can build the network step-by-step.
It depends on the country, too. In Europe, the leaders are Germany, the United Kingdom, and Scandinavian nations. In the United States hydrogen is becoming increasingly popular in California, and Japan is making a big investment in the technology.
How similar are EVs to hydrogen cars?
The basic idea is that you take an EV with a large battery pack, and you replace the pack with a fuel cell, a hydrogen tank, and a smaller battery. From there on the drivetrain is identical; the electric motor, the electronics, the gearbox, it’s all the same. And they have the same driving experience, too. In both cases it’s pure electric so you can’t tell the difference between the two when you’re behind the wheel.
In 2005, BMW introduced an experimental 7 Series with a V12 engine modified to run on hydrogen. Is that technology still being developed, or have you moved on?
We’ve completely stopped that project. It made sense at the time because the components were cost-effective. Technically speaking it’s still possible, but fuel cell technology has made so much progress in the last few years that there’s no need to combust hydrogen anymore. Additionally, the hydrogen stored in the 7’s tanks was liquid. In today’s hydrogen drivetrain, the hydrogen is gaseous and we cool it down to a very low temperature so that we can store more of it in the tank.
The 7 Series program nonetheless helped BMW gather precious information about hydrogen, we learned a lot from it.
Hypothetically, would a 3 Series equipped with a hydrogen drivetrain be heavier than a diesel-powered model?
Currently yes, and that’s one of the reasons why we say that the technology needs improvement. We need to reduce cost, we need to reduce weight, and we need to increase power. Our experimental 5 Series GT is significantly heavier than a GT with an internal combustion engine. That’s just a matter of progress, though, and we’re working to bring weight down in the next few years.
Can you leverage the carbon fiber expertise of BMW i to make cars lighter?
Of course. The electric drivetrain is borrowed from i, and the hydrogen tank we’re working with is a 700-bar unit that’s basically made out of carbon fiber and aluminum.
Which body style is best suited to receive a hydrogen drivetrain?
Fuel cell technology has made so much progress in the last few years that there’s no need to combust hydrogen anymore.
The bigger ones. The cost and the weight of an EV mainly depend on the size of the battery; if you have a small battery, electric makes more sense than hydrogen. The break-even point is 300-400 kilometers (186-248 miles). Beyond that, hydrogen makes more sense because you only need to make the tank larger. It’s not rocket science, and it’s not very costly. The cost is in the fuel cell itself.
With an electric vehicle, if you want to go beyond 300-400 kilometers you need to make the battery pack bigger, heavier, and more expensive, and you’ll reach a certain point where it won’t make sense anymore. The breakover point is pretty set in stone, too, because we’ll be making a lot of progress in both battery technology and hydrogen drivetrains over the coming years.
You’re developing hydrogen drivetrains with Toyota. Is it beneficial to work with someone else? Would you still invest in hydrogen tech if you didn’t have someone to split the cost with?
We’d still do it, but sharing the burden makes sense because it’s a huge investment. Other OEMs work together, too, it’s not just us. There are currently no suppliers who can deliver a turn-key hydrogen drivetrain for a car, so the knowledge lies in the hands of OEMs.
Can hydrogen cars become a viable alternative to gasoline- and diesel-burning models without government support?
Initially, it’s helpful to have the government’s support because it gets the ball rolling. The hydrogen station programs that I mentioned before are mainly sponsored by the European Union, and research is partly funded by miscellaneous governments, so we’re getting a lot of support already. Any time you roll out a new technology it takes a while for it to become profitable and affordable; in the end it has to be, though.
You’ve put hydrogen cars in the hands of customers before as part of a pilot program. What feedback did you receive?
People told us the cars were nice to drive, the good news is that you can’t really tell whether you’re driving a hydrogen car or an EV. However, we need to make them lighter and sportier. Those are our goals for the second-generation tech that we want to have ready in 2020.
So I’ll be able to buy a hydrogen-powered BMW in 2020?
No, 2020 is when we’ll have the components ready. After that, we’ll decide which vehicles will usher in the technology, what markets we’ll break into first, and so forth.
What do you think your target markets will be?
We are probably going to start in Japan. In the United States we’ll start with California, and in Europe we’re mainly looking at Germany, Scandinavian nations, and the United Kingdom.
Is China interested in hydrogen at all?
Actually, there are discussions about hydrogen currently taking place in China, it seems like officials there are becoming more and more interested in the technology. It’s going to be an important market, so it’ll be interesting to see how it evolves in the coming months and years.
There’s currently not much of an infrastructure there, but they have a few pilot programs involving hydrogen-powered buses. Maybe at one point they’ll say “hey, hydrogen works for us as well.” It would be really helpful for the advancement of the technology because China is a huge market.