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What’s the BMW iX5 doing with hydrogen?

The return of the mailbag. What’s BMW’s plan for hydrogen-powered cars with their iX5, and is it better than an all battery-powered fleet? Send your questions! Question I know BMW has been working on hydrogen-power for years now, and recently released the iX5. Do you think this is the way forward for cars? It sure…

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The return of the mailbag. What’s BMW’s plan for hydrogen-powered cars with their iX5, and is it better than an all battery-powered fleet?

Send your questions!

Question

I know BMW has been working on hydrogen-power for years now, and recently released the iX5. Do you think this is the way forward for cars? It sure seems far more viable than electric cars.

– Todd

Answer

Todd, you’re onto something. I’ve explained why battery-powered cars aren’t any better for the environment, and in the coming weeks I plan on publishing an article on living with one full-time. But, there’s no two ways about it: burning dead dinos does in fact cause our planet to warm up.

So how can we have our cake and eat it too? Maybe hydrogen-powered electric car. But first, let’s zoom out.

“Big” battery

No doubt you’ve heard of Big Oil. These are the people and companies that profit from the production and use of all things oil. Surely, they have an agenda.

Well, now you can add Big Battery to that list. Just like countries with a lot of oil in their territory formed OPEC, countries with a lot of nickle are looking to form their own cartel. They have money – they want more of it, no matter how dirty mining for nickle is.

Nickle for your thoughts

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Will a hydrogen-powered X5 be able to do this as easily as a gas-powered one?

And for what? A battery can power a car, sure, but I can tell you after driving around in a Hummer EV for a week that batteries have limits. How can a battery power a train? A plane? A cargo ship? Can you imagine all the nickle needed to replace all the cargo ships in the world? I can.

Here’s an electric cargo vessel that can haul 120 TEU – or the typical trailer containers you see on ships. That’s cool – real ones can haul 5,000, even up past 14,000. We need to replace 5,600 ships all over the world.

So what can we do? Could it be hydrogen power? Let’s bring it back to cars and see.

How do hydrogen cars work anyway?

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The BMW iX5 refuels with hydrogen in about five minutes. Photo: BMW.

I won’t turn this into a science lesson. Essentially, hydrogen cars use fuel cells to power the electric motor, as oppose to relying on lithium-ion battery packs. They emit only water vapor.

You fill up a tank with compressed hydrogen gas. This is combined with oxygen inside a fuel cell stack to generate electricity via a process called reverse electrolysis. The fuel cell itself is like a battery – it has an anode, a cathode, and a catalyst that separates electrons and protons from the hydrogen. The car has multiple fuel cells, called stacks.

It’s still an EV, but instead of relying on the grid to give you juice, you’ve brought along the tools to make electricity yourself.

The energy either powers the electric motor directly or charges a small lithium-ion battery that helps power the motor and can store the energy for later use. Hydrogen cars can also utilize regenerative braking.

So what’s a BMW iX5?

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The BMW iX5 during winter testing. Photo: BMW.

Believe it or not Todd, the origin for this car comes from the Zupra deal. In exchange for building the Supra off the Z4 platform, BMW asked Toyota for a peak at their hydrogen-powered Mirai. The Germans copied homework.

To build the iX5, BMW takes an X5 and cuts out the floor to replace it with a new one that can hold two hydrogen tanks. The tanks have a total capacity of about 16 pounds and feed an underhood fuel-cell stack paired with a rear-mounted electric motor and battery. The iX5’s entire fuel cell electrical system makes a combined 374 horsepower, and BMW says curb weight is comparable to the plug-in-hybrid X5, around 5,600 pounds. They say the iX5 can accelerate from zero to 62 mph in under seven seconds and has a top speed of 118 mph. It also has an estimated driving range of around 310 miles, though this is all experimental for now.

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Blame the Supra for the tech swap between BMW and Toyota.

All of this is very nice, and it does solve some problems inherent to EVs. BMW is of the mind that it will need both battery and hydrogen-powered cars for its future.

BMW’s iX5 is their first real foray into hydrogen power, but they’ve done other things with it, like using it to go boom in an internal combustion engine in an E65 7 Series. The issue there is that gasoline has much more energy density to it – you’d need to burn a lot more hydrogen to get the same amount of power.

Whats the good and bad for hydrogen-powered cars?

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The tanks for the iX5 go in the floor. Photo: BMW.

You can fill your tank up in about five minutes, and they posses similar range to gasoline-powered cars. Unless you can install a fast charger in your home, electric cars are not truly practical yet.

However, hydrogen isn’t cheap, and it takes a lot of energy to make it. Currently, 90% of the hydrogen made in the US is from fossil fuel-powered plants. Also, it can easily go boom in a collision, though auto makers have ways of dealing with releasing the gas in the tank in an emergency. And there’s no infrastructure. Right now, there are about 400 stations worldwide.

Yet I think this is a more reasonable solution in the end. We can make hydrogen in cleaner ways, and battery-powered cars will always need a grid and a station to charge them. What happens in an apartment complex with 200 electric cars in the lot? Does that mean 200 chargers need to be installed?

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An electric car is only as practical as the infrastructure that supports it. Photo: BMW.

Hydrogen is the future. Maybe.

Todd, I think hydrogen will make sense for some important things. Tractor trailers, for instance, will benefit greatly from hydrogen vs having a giant battery to haul around. And for a country so obsessed with clean air, how many times have you been on a drive only to observe a 20-year old dump truck spewing diesel fumes into the air? The government is going to need to convince those guys to get rid of ’em. Take this stat:

“While the delivery trucks and tractor trailers that distribute goods and cargo make up only about 4% of vehicles on U.S. roads, they are responsible for nearly half of the nitrogen oxide emissions and nearly 60 percent of the fine particulates from all vehicles, and about 7% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S”

Seems like the answer is to attack this problem first, since it’s the biggest offender.

The BMW iX5 is a cool party trick, but as with any new means of propulsion, it needs infrastructure to support it. Till then, it’s dino juice.

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I use Nikon camera bodies and lenses, a Westcott Ice Light 2, Manfrotto tripod, B + W filters and an iMac Pro to make the art you see here.

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