GM, Honda and the Advancing of Fuel Cells

“Fuel Cell Systems Manufacturing, LLC.” It sort of sounds like “Spacely Sprockets, Inc.,” which those of you of a certain age will remember. (The rest of you can Google it.) But there is nothing fictitious nor cartoonish about Fuel Cell Systems Manufacturing (FCSM), as it is the auto industry’s first joint venture to mass produce hydrogen fuel cell systems.

“Fuel Cell Systems Manufacturing, LLC.”

It sort of sounds like “Spacely Sprockets, Inc.,” which those of you of a certain age will remember. (The rest of you can Google it.)

But there is nothing fictitious nor cartoonish about Fuel Cell Systems Manufacturing (FCSM), as it is the auto industry’s first joint venture to mass produce hydrogen fuel cell systems. The partners in this undertaking are General Motors and Honda.

Those two companies have been working together since July 2013 on the development of fuel cell systems that Toshiaki Mikoshiba, chief operating officer of the North American Region for Honda Motor Co., Ltd. and president & CEO of American Honda Co., Inc. and Honda North America, Inc., described as being “compact, low-cost and next-generation.” The stack is predicated on the fuel cell system that Honda has launched in the Clarity Fuel Cell vehicle in both Japan and the U.S. That is

Honda’s third generation. The one it worked on with GM is the fourth.

The two companies have brought together a development team that works together “as one company,” in the words of Dan Nicholson, vice president, GM Global Propulsion Systems, on both sides of the Pacific. Nicholson said that the two companies—which have more than 2,200 fuel cell-related patents between them—have developed a stack that, in effect, “marks the arrival of fuel cells. They’re not a science project any more. They’re a mainstream alternative energy choice.”

FCSM will begin production of the system in 2020 in the GM battery pack manufacturing facility located in Brownstown, Michigan. GM and Honda will each make equal investments totaling $85-million to bring this to fruition.

And according to Mikoshiba, although this is a GM facility, both companies will be involved in the production engineering in the plant for the production of the units.

Speaking of cost, it is worth noting that one inhibitor to more than the limited production of fuel cells is the fact that platinum or other precious metals are used in the cathode and anode. Platinum at Tiffany’s is one thing, but having it being used as a catalyst is something else entirely.

According to Charlie Freese, GM executive director of Global Fuel Cell Business, “GM and Honda are making a dramatic step toward lower cost, higher-volume fuel cell systems. Precious metals have been reduced dramatically”—while he didn’t say how much has been taken out to date of the stack being prepared for production, he did acknowledge that they have fuel cells in the lab with just 7 grams of platinum, which is a fraction of the norm—“and a fully cross-functional team is developing advanced manufacturing processes with advances in the design.”

Freese explained that the benefit of having the product and process engineers working together is one that will optimize the system for production, which will help reduce costs when economies of scale are achieved. And he pointed out that with Honda and GM working together, not only can scale be reached more quickly than would be the case were each operating individually, but that because of the collaboration, engineering costs are cut in half for each, as are the costs for things like tooling. There is also the advantage of higher volumes when dealing with the supply base. He also noted that this would allow more rapid improvements going forward, again because the investment made by each of the companies is less that were they do operate individually.

Although neither of the companies has announced exactly what they’ll be using the fuel cells in, there is a good likelihood that Honda will continue producing hydrogen-powered vehicles because they will help the company reach its goal of having two-thirds of the vehicles it builds be electrified by 2030.

Mark Reuss, GM executive vice president, Global Product Development, Purchasing and Supply Chain, pointed out that GM is thinking beyond the use in consumer cars and trucks to military, aerospace and maritime applications.—GSV