Earlier this year at the 2015 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, German automaker BMW was due to showcase a hydrogen fuel cell drive module prototype designed to preview a possible hydrogen fuel cell vehicle from the company at some point in the future. Yet despite announcing the exhibit for Detroit back in December last year, the drive module prototype was quietly and inexplicably pulled from BMW’s stand ahead of the actual event.
Six months later, and BMW is ready to showcase its development of hydrogen fuel cell technology to the world in the form of a BMW 5 Series Gran Tourismo and BMW i8-derived prototype vehicle, both of which are powered by BMW’s latest prototype hydrogen fuel cell technology.
The two cars are being presented at BMW’s annual Innovation Days driving event at the Miramar proving grounds in the south of France, along with other future car technologies being developed by the BMW Group, including a prototype 2 Series Active Tourer plug-in hybrid and a 1 Series BMW fitted with a three-cylinder gasoline engine fitted with direct water injection cooling system.
Thanks to an ongoing drivetrain partnership between itself and Japanese automaker Toyota, BMW has gained access to Toyota’s hybrid electric and hydrogen fuel cell technologies, allowing it to build its own hydrogen fuel cell roadmap for future models. Indeed, for more than a year, we’ve heard regular rumors touting a future BMW i-branded hydrogen fuel cell vehicle due some time in the near future. Some of those rumors have come from insider sources at BMW, others have come from Toyota executives.
BMW is keen to note it has been working on using hydrogen as a fuel source for 30+ years
Aside from its partnership with Toyota on hydrogen fuel cell technology, BMW is keen to reiterate that it has been working on ‘predevelopment’ work for hydrogen vehicles for more than 30 years, having used the fuel in both fuel cell electric vehicles and combustion-engined vehicles.
Indeed, the i8 look-alike — a car produced in 2012 — represents BMW’s hydrogen fuel cell research before its partnership with Toyota, while the 5 Series GT represents the collaboration between the two firms. While the former is no-longer used by BMW, the latter represents BMW’s first street-legal development vehicle, a fleet of which will undergo ‘internal testing’ at BMW.
Despite that fact and looking production ready, BMW is keen to point out that the 5 Series GT is at least two product cycles away and is what we should consider a very early research and development prototype.
To the vehicles. As the older fuel cell car, the i8-derived sports car features a small 4 hydrogen fuel cell tank capable of storing approximately 4kg of CGH2 at 700 bar, as well as a 1 kilowatt-hour high-voltage lithium-ion battery pack. Similar to the battery pack found in a hybrid car, this battery pack is used to allow the vehicle to operate in electric only mode for low-speed operation, negating the need to switch on the fuel cell stack unless higher power levels are needed.
With a top speed of 200 kph (125 mph) and a total power system power output of around 200 kilowatts, the prototype vehicle can accelerate from 0-62 mph in around 6 seconds.
Meanwhile, the 5 Series GT technology demonstrator, built using technology jointly developed by Toyota and BMW, is a more tantalising vision of how BMW views the use of hydrogen fuel cell technology in the future, occupying a place in the marketplace between its zero emission battery electric vehicles, its plug-in hybrid vehicles, and its highly efficient twin-turbo internal combustion engine vehicles.
Based on the current production 5 Series GT, the prototype hydrogen fuel cell crossover features a powerful 160 kilowatt electric motor driving the rear wheels, powered by the same proton exchange membrane hydrogen fuel cell stack found in the 2016 Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel cell sedan.
Resting in the front of the vehicle where the internal combustion engine sits, the fuel cell stack is fed by a specially designed high-pressure hydrogen fuel cell tank which sits longitudinally underneath the car where the transmission tunnel would ordinarily be in a conventional 5 Series GT.
As with other hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, there’s also a small high-voltage battery pack with a capacity of approximately 1 kilowatt-hour.
Worthy of note at this point however is the fact that BMW has developed two different hydrogen fuel tanks for use in its fleet of 5 Series GT hydrogen vehicles. One is a standard 700-bar hydrogen tank similar to the one used in BMW’s previous hydrogen prototypes. It can deliver a range of approximately 280 miles per fill.
The second features BMW’s patented crypto-compressed hydrogen fuel tank technology, which despite having the same physical size as the 700-bar vehicle, makes use of the wonders of thermodynamics to store 7.1 kilograms of super-cold CGH2 at a 320 bar, giving a theoretical range of around 434 miles per fill.
While BMW hasn’t committed to an exact production date for its hydrogen fuel cell technology, it does stipulate one important qualifier before we’ll see any attempt from the automaker to bring hydrogen fuel cell technology to market: refuelling infrastructure.
Like its electric vehicle rollout, BMW is keen to let other automakers go first — and ensure there’s a useable, viable refuelling infrastructure in place — before it brings a car to market. In the interim, plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles — as well as its new, more efficient internal combustion engines — will remain its primary commercial focus.
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