By on April 12, 2010

Which drive train will own the future? ICE, hydrogen, hybrid? BMW bets it will be all of the above. Autocar reports that BMW has mated a regular ICE with a fuel cell, electricity-storing supercapacitors and an electrically driven rear-axle. The reasoning behind this new type of hybrid is that BMW’s engineers believe that this power train will make the cars capable of switching to an emissions free propulsion system and switch back to ICE when needed. Now I know what you’re thinking at this point. “Cammy, aside from being the worst new writer of the year, why would anyone want to buy a car like this?” Well, the answer lies in Europe.

As Europe looks to meeting the Kyoto Protocol and clean up air quality in cities, many cities are already banning stinkers from city centers. Not only that, soon cities will make it costly to drive and park a regular car, while non-polluting ones drive free or get a discount. A car which can switch to an emission free propulsion system suddenly starts to make sense, as this powertrain could get around these bans. Once back on the Autobahn …

The BMW power train is capable of being stuffed inside a FWD series 1 hatchback and the Mini Clubman. The project hasn’t been greenlit by BMW bosses as while this is good in theory, in reality, there are still problems. One of which is, who will pay to create a hydrogen filling infrastructure in these cities? Yep, it’s not easy being green.

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19 Comments on “BMW’s Hydrogen Hybrid...”

  • avatar

    And of course there is always that ultimate problem: Where does the hydrogen come from? Hydrogen is everywhere – attached to other molecules – and it takes energy to get it in pure form.
    And smaller problem, hydrogen at normal atmospheric temperature and pressure isn’t very energy dense – hence it has to be stored at high pressures and low temperatures – necessitating heavy tanks.

  • avatar
    Tricky Dicky

    Hydrogen may be problematic in terms of diverting CO2 production from one place to another, but you have to remember that the European regulators don’t just have CO2 in their sights. Air Quality is a massive issue and they are trying to use legislation to influence the market away from vehicles which pollute noxious gases like NOx and particulate matter. That nasty stuff doesn’t come out of a hydrogen fuel cell, just electricity and water. Create the right market conditions and appropriate gov’t led incentives and the infrastructure will grow soon enough. And of course, each time oil prices increase, it just adds to the marginal benefits of hydrogen as an energy transporter.

  • avatar
    Tricky Dicky

    Cammy – you are obviously getting more abuse than I am reading. I love your writing and sense of humoUr. :-)

  • avatar

    This sounds enormously expensive.

  • avatar

    Another Cammy fan here.

  • avatar

    Wow; “ICE with a fuel cell , electricity-storing supercapacitors and an electrically driven rear-axle.” They forgot the hamster!

    Seriously, won’t the Chevy Volt fit the requirement if the driver has control of when it can fire up the ICE to recharge it? And if it does need a charge to get out of the city, it can be plugged in.

  • avatar

    If Graf Zeppelin could get his hands on enough hydrogen, so can we! OK- I’m kidding. But in all seriousness, the problem is big, but think of some of the upsides- it can be safely produced, stored, and transported- and no difficult to acquire starting material is needed. That means we can make it in many small locations. Hydrogen production could serve as a funnel for other power technologies that are insufficient on their own to serve large scale needs. Get sunshine four months per year? Store solar power created Hydrogen. Live near a thermal well? Geopowered Hydrogen production it is! Windy West Texas native? Well.. you see where I am going with this. Of course, you can make the same argument for electricity, and it transports even easier across high voltage lines- but it is tough to store. I see Hydrogen’s value like this- you cut the transport needs of energy production in half relative to gasoline because you don’t transport raw materials to a refinery, only the finished product to the customer. You have a perfectly compatible fuel for mixing from many sources no matter what the energy used to make it was. Most of all- it is an inclusive technology- the solution isn’t Hydrogen or something else- the answer could be Hydrogen AND everything else, based on your regional resources. We can use it for cars, or for almost everything (except maybe flight- I’m not an engineer but that sounds pretty tricky)- it can be adapted to any new source of power. What’s that? You just invented a super efficient solar cell? No, we don’t need to make a whole new set of vehicles based on your one discovery- we don’t need any Betamax versus VHS or HD-DVD versus Blu-Ray wars in our energy future- we’ll just use your invention to make more Hydrogen. Scalable. Flexible. Easy to standardize. Incorporates rather than isolates past and future energy production methods and technologies. Is it perfect? No- but it has a lot going for it.

    • 0 avatar

      Great points. I have been (and remain) ambivalent about Hydrogen, though very drawn to its huge upsides and water-vapor-pure emissions.

      You lay out a number of other good reasons for it.

  • avatar

    As I recall, the Kyoto Protocol was defeated by the US Senate by a vote of 100-0. Even the most liberal of the US politicians at the time knew it was crazy talk.

    BMW should stop fooling around, and just go straight to portable nuclear power like deep-space spacecraft have. And by spreading the wealth, we can each have one for free, or at least affordably after government subsidies.

    Seriously, hydrogen is a wonderful fuel, but its future was forever dimmed on May 6, 1937. It will be very tough to sell the public on its widespread use (other than the space shuttle, soon to retire). Safely handling a colorless, odorless gas is tricky, even when using flame arrestors. Hydrogen ignites in mixtures between 4% and 75%, so nearly any leak is bad news.

    Having designed equipment with explosion-proof safety devices for use in hydrogen atmospheres, placing this gas into the hands of Joe Public is a no-go from an economical point of view. Here’s why:

    a) We accept it when gasoline catches on fire because you can see it.
    b) We will not accept personal responsibility for hydrogen fires because the gas cannot be seen. All fingers will point to the manufacturer of the equipment that handles it, whether it’s the distribution center or the vehicle.
    c) A combination of fuel cells, batteries, and ICE would be ridiculously expensive, making the Volt look like a great idea.

    • 0 avatar

      In all fairness, the Volt isn’t a bad idea. However, as envisioned and described by GM, it was a bad project.

      Recent suggestions that the price may be substantially lower than originally forecast (Wagoner, at one time, said $48K and Lutz had been talking $40K) suggest the project might make some sense, presuming GM can make any money on it.

      I still think the expected range-extender is too large and GM shows no signs of fixing that. It looks like it’s going to ship as a short-range EV with nearly full gas powertrain that can run at reduced efficiency over long distances, rather than as a medium-range EV with an actual range-extender. With those parameters, GM would have been better off licensing HSD and mating it with a larger battery.

      Yeah, they would have ended up with a Chevy Prius EV-range. So what? It’s a system that has been proven to work and would have taken less time to get out the door.

      The BMW thing… waaaayyy too complicated.

  • avatar

    A statemobile, if there ever was one… the product of unholy sex between government and business.

  • avatar

    As much as I love the theory of hydrogen (and really, I do), the reality always fall short, and comes with various rather unpleasant side-effects.

    If we are looking at hydrogen pushed by the oil companies, it’ll be obtained from cracking natural gas. While we do have a fair amount of nat gas on the planet, most of the easy stuff is gone, which leaves us in the US obtaining nat gas from fracing, or the Middle East.

    If we’re generating hydrogen at the distribution point via electrolysis, there’s a whole lotta infrastructure issues that need to be addressed.

    Hydrogen as a motor fuel might work in dense urban environments, but the question is, why bother? Most, if not all of hydrogen’s benefits can be achieved with pure electric vehicles. Which, while hardly perfect, are light-years ahead of hydrogen vehicles.

    Beyond all that, as Gslippy put it succinctly,” A combination of fuel cells, batteries, and ICE would be ridiculously expensive, making the Volt look like a great idea.”

  • avatar

    This BMW concept is what I would call ugly engineering. That’s what happens when people who really should have been doing simple things such as farming started to design cars.

    With the Nissan Leaf coming for sale, whatever little remaining justification for hydrogen fuel is gone.

    Just keep on improving pure electric cars. Say, extend the range by 10% and reduce the cost by 5% every model refresh, which is entirely realistic.

  • avatar
    Dr Strangelove

    For this ‘new type of hybrid’, we clearly need a new type of name. May I submit ‘bastard’.

  • avatar

    About 95% of the hydrogen produced today in the United States is made via steam-methane(natural gas)reforming.

    Steam-Reforming Reactions
    CH4 + H2O (+heat) → CO + 3H2

    Water-Gas Shift Reaction
    CO + H2O → CO2 + H2 (+small amount of heat)

    I have read that these reactions are only about 30 percent thermally efficient. Note that there is still CO2 produced regardless of the heat source.

    • 0 avatar


      Not only is the sourcing horribly dangerous to our aquifers (look up fracing) the process for obtaining the hydrogen is horribly inefficient.

      Just another hustle of the masses.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    All of that in a Mini. Where will the driver sit?

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