German automaker BMW has begun small-scale production of a new hydrogen-powered car — for use as “technology demonstrators” — declaring it is “certain” that fuel-cell cars vehicles will become an important part of the energy transition.

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“We are certain that hydrogen is set to gain significantly in importance for individual mobility and therefore consider a mixture of battery and fuel cell electric drive systems to be a sensible approach in the long term,” said Frank Weber, the management board member responsible for development.

“Fuel cells don’t require any critical raw materials such as cobalt, lithium or nickel either, so by investing in this type of drive system we are also strengthening the geopolitical resilience of the BMW Group.”

Lithium, cobalt and nickel have historically been the main components of the NMC (nickel-manganese-cobalt) lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles (EVs) , but automakers such as Tesla are increasingly turning to lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries that do not use cobalt or nickel.

The BMW iX5 Hydrogen sports utility vehicle (SUV) — or Sports Activity Vehicle, as the German carmaker calls it — is being built by hand at the company’s Research and Innovation Centre in Munich, where all its new models are made for the first time.

BMW has not said how many of the new vehicles it will make, but pointed out that they will “be used as a technology demonstrators for locally carbon-free mobility in selected regions from spring 2023”.

“Our BMW iX5 Hydrogen test fleet will allow us to gain new and valuable insights, enabling us to present customers with an attractive product range once the hydrogen economy becomes a widespread reality,” said Weber.

In October, BMW CEO Oliver Zipse told Bloomberg that: “After the electric car, which has been going on for about ten years and scaling up rapidly, the next trend will be hydrogen”, adding that “When it’s more scaleable, hydrogen will be the hippest thing to drive”.

This is despite EVs and fuel-cell cars coming onto the market at about the same time in the late 2000s.

Less than 50,000 hydrogen cars have been sold worldwide to date, compared to 16.5 million battery EVs — despite both types of vehicles coming onto the market at about the same time in the late 2000s.

Honda discontinued its Clarity fuel-cell model in August 2021 due to weak demand, but last week, the Japanese company revealed it will build small volumes of a hydrogen-powered version of its CR-V model from 2024.

The BMW iX5, which is based on its existing X5 model, will contain two hydrogen tanks, a high-performance battery, an electric motor and the fuel cell technology — with specific parts being made via 3D printing.

According to a press release, the BMW iX5 Hydrogen fuel cell technology is “an attractive complementary alternative to the battery electric drive system. This is especially true for customers for whom short refuelling stops and long ranges are a must, as well as for regions still lacking an adequate charging infrastructure”.

At the end of last year, there were 1.8 million public electric car chargepoints around the world, compared to 685 hydrogen filling stations.

Fuel-cell vehicles are more expensive to buy and operate than battery EVs (when using green hydrogen) due to their more complex technology and the energy losses from converting electricity to H2 and back again in a fuel cell, in addition to the extra costs of compressing, transporting and storing the gas.