BMW Bites The Bullet On Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles

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We’ve been having a lively discussion about fuel cell electric vehicles over here at CleanTechnica, and along comes BMW to stir the pot. After teasing — and then withdrawing — a concept fuel cell electric vehicle for the 2015 North American International Auto Show in Detroit earlier this year, BMW just let drop that it really, really will have fuel cell vehicles in production by 2020.

BMW teases FCEV again

Teasing The BMW Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles

The news comes to us from AutoExpress, which got wind of the 2020 FCEV (fuel cell electric vehicle) launch from “sources at BMW.” The details are still very thin but based on the timing and an R&D alliance with Toyota, AutoExpress reports that the production cycle favors the next iteration of the BMW i3 electric vehicle line.

That’s consistent with some i3 FCEV rumors that Motoring picked up last fall, though at the time Motoring optimistically reported that 2016 would be the go date.

Meanwhile, last year, CleanTechnica reported on some other rumors floating around the Intertubes, suggesting that the BMW i5 could provide a platform for the new FCEV, possibly in 2018. That doesn’t seem too likely in light of the new report, but who knows?

To round out the rumor mill, late last year our sister site noted that some BMW officials were pointing at the FCEV refueling infrastructure (or lack thereof) as a major obstacle to development. That makes the prognosis for a production model look a little more bleak and, along those lines, apparently the BMW FCEV concept was not ready for Detroit earlier this year.


BMW & Hydrogen

For those of you with long memories, BMW did introduce a “production-ready” hydrogen car on a demo-testing basis back in 2005, but that vehicle burned hydrogen in a combustion engine. The FCEV thing is a completely different approach (for those of you new to the topic, fuel cells don’t burn fuel, they convert it to electricity).

One problem with FCEVs, as we’ve pointed out previously on CleanTechnica, is that hydrogen is the fuel of choice, and natural gas is the source of choice for producing hydrogen. That opens the whole fracking can of worms, and more worms are in store if a new Natural Gas Initiative in the US pans out.

However, hydrogen can also be produced from sustainable sources using renewable energy, and BMW has begun to explore the renewable biogas angle.

In 2011, BMW embarked on a “Landfill Gas-to-Hydrogen Pilot Project,” with technical and funding support from the US Energy Department and the South Carolina Research Authority. The project has also been highlighted as a best practices model by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

As of 2013, the project was focusing on cost-effective ways to remove impurities from the biogas stream in preparation for hydrogen production. Here’s what BMW had to say about that:

…The objective of generating renewable hydrogen from methane is proving to be a possible option for BMW and will be transformational for the fuel cell industry.

BMW is also all over biomass and biogas for on-site energy generation at its production facilities. Aside from South Carolina, another notable example is the company’s plant in Rosslyn, South Africa.

Enough Sustainable Hydrogen To Go Around?

BMW’s biogas initiative brings up an interesting point about sustainably sourced hydrogen, which is that FCEVs are far from the only market for biogas. With competing demands, it’s not a given that enough sustainable hydrogen will be around to supply a growing FCEV market — assuming that the FCEV market will grow.

Helpfully, back in 2014, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) produced a hydrogen market study called “Renewable Hydrogen Potential from Biogas in the United States,” which addresses exactly that point.

The report details the availability of methane from wastewater treatment plants, manure, and industrial/commercial sources as well as landfills, in the context of demand from the FCEV market as well as other users.

NREL comes up with a total methane potential in raw biogas estimated at at approximately 16 million tonnes, though actual net availability is about 6.2 million tonnes.

Here’s the bit of interest to potential FCEV buyers and manufacturers:

The total number of vehicles supported from all biogas sources— using net availability where available — if the methane is converted to hydrogen is about 11 million FCEVs annually, with landfills accounting for more than a third of that at 3.7 million FCEVs annually.

NREL also gives sustainable hydrogen bonus points for lending itself to localized production, which could assist the early rollout of FCEVs. The agency does note, though, that “reaching the point of economic feasibility for developing these resources has several hurdles.” Scale, contaminants, and resistance from natural gas utilities are some of those obstacles.

The bottom line, as far as the scope of this report goes, is that locally produced, sustainable hydrogen can supply “upwards of 5%” of US vehicles, meaning FCEVs.

That 5% figure might not seem particularly exciting, but NREL notes that beyond the report’s scope are a number of other significant sources for biogas, including fats, oils, and grease. Emerging technology could also make it cost-effective to produce sustainable methane from agricultural and forest waste, and other “woody” sources.

It’s also possible that the rapidly falling cost of wind and solar will make those sources more attractive for heat and electricity generation than biogas, which could relieve the FCEV market from some of the future demand competition.

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Image Credit (screenshot): BMW all-electric i8 courtesy of BMW.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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