Transport: Energy-intensive, too expensive? The long way to the hydrogen car

For the future, Mercedes-Benz and Audi are relying entirely on battery cars - other manufacturers are also investing in hydrogen cars.

Transport: Energy-intensive, too expensive? The long way to the hydrogen car

For the future, Mercedes-Benz and Audi are relying entirely on battery cars - other manufacturers are also investing in hydrogen cars. Toyota and Hyundai, for example, have come a long way, now BMW is putting a small series on the road with the iX5 Hydrogen. However, experts are skeptical about the technology - it is too energy-intensive, too expensive and there is also a lack of the right infrastructure. But the fuel cell also has its advantages compared to the battery.

The starting signal for hydrogen production at BMW will be given in Garching on Wednesday: CEO Oliver Zipse wants to start production of the fuel cell system for the new vehicle here together with the Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder.

Look to Asia

With the small series, the car manufacturer wants to gain experience and keep the option open of selling such cars in large numbers soon. China wants to have one million hydrogen cars on the road by 2030, and Japan and Korea also see potential. "We are already thinking about a possible next generation," said Zipse when presenting the half-year balance sheet at the beginning of August.

Although BMW intends to sell half of its battery-powered cars by 2030, it does not want to put all its eggs in one basket in view of scarce raw materials and insufficient charging networks. Hydrogen is "the missing piece of the puzzle that e-mobility can complete where battery-electric drives will not prevail," said Zipse.

Toyota has BMW supply the fuel cells for its iX5 hydrogen. These will be assembled in Garching and from the end of the year in Munich will be fitted with the hydrogen tanks and the in-house electric motors in the bodies that will be delivered from the Spartanburg SUV plant in the USA. The small series, consisting of less than 100 vehicles, will not be sold or leased, but will be tested by drivers in everyday life in Europe, the USA, Japan, Korea and China.

Industry expert Stefan Bratzel is skeptical about hydrogen cars. A quick ramp-up is not feasible, "we're talking about long periods of time. That won't help us over the cliffs of the next few years," said the head of the CAM Auto Institute in Bergisch Gladbach. And "it's a costly affair."

Hydrogen generated with wind and solar power can be burned directly in a gasoline engine - Porsche, Toyota, Mazda, Subaru, Kawasaki and Yamaha are working on it. Or a fuel cell in a car generates electricity for an electric motor from the hydrogen. Toyota and the Korean carmaker Hyundai sell such vehicles, and the Chinese carmaker Changan has just started series production.

Hydrogen needs energy

For Bratzel the most important argument against hydrogen cars is "the high energy consumption for the production of hydrogen". On the way from electricity to hydrogen and back to electricity, a large part of the energy is lost. Although hydrogen is well suited to storing excess electricity and can also be transported over long distances, “that is of course an advantage”. But "you also have to keep an eye on the costs," said Bratzel.

Another argument against is the infrastructure. In Germany, for example, there are currently only around 100 hydrogen filling stations. A network has to be set up for trucks anyway - Daimler is developing fuel cells with Volvo and wants to bring the trucks onto the market in 2025, Opel has fuel cell transport on offer. But if cars are also to fill up with hydrogen, the network would have to be much denser, "that's very expensive," said Bratzel.

For the management consultancy McKinsey and the hydrogen association Hydrogen Council, the battery car is the measure of all things, "crucial for decarbonization and a mainstream solution". But if 10 percent of the car fleet were to run on hydrogen, this could save high investments for peaks in the electricity and charging network and "more than offset" the costs for hydrogen filling stations.

Zipse said: "In our view, hydrogen is the missing piece of the puzzle that e-mobility can complete where battery-electric drives will not prevail." And for the driver, the hydrogen car offers advantages in everyday life that he is familiar with from petrol or diesel: quick refueling and long ranges, even in the cold.

As CEO, Zipse also asked "how Europe wants to ensure strategic access to the crucial raw materials for e-mobility". New dependencies threatened. Bratzel said, "We're going to run into battery shortages over the next few years." With the fuel cell, BMW is "a bit more broadened".

E-cars with batteries should remain cheaper for small cars and in the middle class than with fuel cells, said Bratzel. Former VW boss Herbert Diess once described hydrogen as the champagne of the energy transition. But there is also a market for champagne. Zipse is "convinced that there is also a market for fuel cell cars in the premium segment in Europe."

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