GM’s Real-World European Fuel Cell Adventure

In what has turned out to be highly fortuitous timing, General Motors conducted a 38-day, 10,000-km endurance run for fuel cell cars in Europe at a time when the price per barrel of oil was going through the roof.

In what has turned out to be highly fortuitous timing, General Motors conducted a 38-day, 10,000-km endurance run for fuel cell cars in Europe at a time when the price per barrel of oil was going through the roof. Starting from Hammerfest, Norway, and finishing in Lisbon, Portugal, the traveling circus visited 14 countries to promote the hydrogen message. In addition to driving the cars on public roads along the entire route to prove their worth to the public, this event, almost as importantly, enabled Larry Burns, GM vice president for Research, Development & Planning, to do what he does best: Use his considerable persuasive powers to advocate the benefits of the fuel cell vehicle to government ministers, politicians, decision makers, the media, students, and anyone else who is prepared to listen.

The “HydroGen3” fuel cell cars used in this event are the third generation of vehicle that first saw the light of day in the spring of 2000. Since then, the range, power, packaging, and overall refinement have improved beyond recognition. The vehicle is powered by a 60-kW/82-hp electric motor, which the fuel cell supplies with electrical energy. It accelerates the five-seater from 0 to 60 mph in around 16 seconds and has a top speed of 100 mph. The German company Linde provided a mobile fuel station to keep the vehicle supplied with hydrogen during the marathon distance.

“Within just a few years, we have succeeded in turning fuel cell technology from a pure research subject into a practicable system,” says Burns. “The HydroGen3, with its compact vehicle architecture and its proven performance, is the visible evi-dence of this.”

As always, though, it is the question of infrastructure and problems of refueling rather than the vehicles themselves that are the principal issues. Burns, though, is optimistic: “Over the last 18 months things have changed very favorably. We surveyed how hydrogen can be conveniently available to customers in the U.S. and said that if you wanted to have hydrogen stations in the l00 largest cities in the U.S. such that a person is never more than two miles from one, and also had them located every 25 miles on the freeway system, how many would you need? It turns out that the answer is around 11,700. Whether it is a natural gas reformer at a station that already has natural gas coming through it, or natural gas converted to liquid hydrogen at a central site and then trucked, we estimate it will cost around $1 million per station.

“To put this $12-billion or so into perspective, the Alaskan pipeline cost $8-billion to install in the mid-70s, which equates to $25-billion today. So for half the cost of the Alaskan pipeline you can have hydrogen conveniently available to 70% to 80% of the population of the United States. This means that the infrastructure is not a major barrier in our judgment, and we’re pretty encouraged by this. The numbers came in pretty similar to Europe, as well.”

For this to happen, though, Burns recognizes that it is going to need the support of governments to provide the stimulus and, in some cases, funding. “Many governments ask us what can they do to help, and many have learned over the years that taking a top-down technology-forcing regulatory approach probably isn’t the right way. There is a growing understanding that we need energy alternatives to petroleum, and that with economies continuing to grow, we need to get away from our 98% dependence on petroleum in transportation. Governments can provide a really important role in guiding the collective will and helping get the players together.

“Research and development is another very important role and for governments to have a comprehensive strategy for, rather than one that is random. We are encouraging them to take a program approach to R&D rather than to support a bunch of separate projects that are not related to each other. They need to understand what is going on with things like fuel cell stacks, electric drive, material research, and hydrogen storage solutions. We also believe that they should provide leadership on harmonization and standards.”

The automotive industry is not alone in developing fuel cell technology. The average person is going to encounter it in something more simple and utilitarian, such as a cell phone or laptop computer. “These sort of items will be powered by something equivalent to a battery. A small charge of either methanol or hydrogen will be plugged into the device to run a fuel cell to create electricity to power the appliance. Not only will it have a longer life [than a battery], but the recharging time will be eliminated.” The big advantage, says Burns, is that it will help boost consumer confidence in the technology and understand it.

“The next play will likely be stationary applications and what we call ‘distributed generation.’ This is because there is also a real market out there with companies willing to pay $500 to $1,000 per kilowatt to have really reliable sources of power—they simply can’t afford to have any interruption.” Financial trading houses are firms in this category.

Large volumes of hydrogen are already being produced—some 45 million tons a year globally, or enough to power around 500,000 fuel cell cars. However, hydrogen is mainly used for fertilizer manufacture and the refining of crude oil. It is also produced as a by-product in a number of chemical processes. Speaking of the latter, Burns says, “This is a market we have already tapped into. Dow Chemical creates hydrogen as a by-product at its plant in Freeport, Texas.” GM uses some of that hydrogen to produce electricity through fuel cell stacks. It then sells the electricity back to Dow.

The fuel cell car has been on the horizon for a number of years. It has always seemed as though it was just a few years away from becoming a common sight on the road. Improvements in both gasoline and diesel technology pushed it back beyond the horizon. During the past couple of years, fuel cells didn’t appear to be getting any closer. Burns, though, is bullish about the arrival of the fuel cell car in series production. “We are certain that commercial viability of a fuel cell system is possible by 2010,” he says. “This means a cost equivalency to a gasoline propulsion system plus reliability and performance.”

The aim is for the fuel cell stack to have a service life of at least 5,500 hours, which represents a distance of around 100,000 miles, and $50 per kilowatt of rated output, a figure that matches that of combustion engine traction systems. At the moment, though, there is still some way before such figures are reached as, based on an annual production of 100,000 units, the fuel cell technology today still costs 10 times as much as a comparable combustion engine system.

“This will not be accomplished with HydroGen3 components or even HydroGen4’s, but it will be accomplished in a reasonable number of generations consistent with that timetable,” says Burns. One example of cost reduction given by GM is the replacement of expensive titanium plates in the fuel cell stack by inexpensive bipolar plates. A more economical production process has also been evolved. “We are a little bit careful not to overbuild the number of demonstration cars because they become obsolete very quickly, but we are very focused on our road map related to cost, reliability and performance. There could also be an unpredictable series of events that collectively could influence the timetable.”

The challenge is clear, says Burns. Today’s world population of 6.4 billion people is likely to reach 7.5 billion in 2020. There is also likely to be an increase in the level of motorization of the global population from 12% to 15% leading to the current 775 million vehicles currently on the roads of the world increasing to 1.1 billion in 2020 and 1.6 billion cars and trucks in 2030, according to the United Nations. Not only will there be an increase in the demand for primary energy of about 2.4% a year worldwide up to 2020, according to the U.S. study International Energy Outlook, but also it will mean a further rise in the release of pollutants and climate-related carbon dioxide emissions. Against this background, the fuel cell will play a key role in sustainable mobility says Burns, quoting various independent studies that have studied the “well-to-wheel” scenarios and concluded that fuel cell vehicles powered by hydrogen have the greatest potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions on a sustained basis and, in the long term, for completely eliminating them.

“All these points, plus the fact that the level of motorization of the global population will increase significantly in the next two decades, show clearly that the fuel cell is the future—especially if renewable energy is used to produce the hydrogen and is a suitable infrastructure is available,” says Burns.

“The phenomenal growth of China with double-digit GDP growth is going to lead to short-term supply and demand mismatches that could drive commodity inflation and could result in some economic instability. What GM is trying to do is move to a world where consideration is given to alternative energy sources to petroleum for transportation purposes. I believe that when we show the world a commercially viable full-cell transportation system, the question will be asked why we took so long to develop both it and the infrastructure.”

Asked about the implications for future investment, Burns is fairly forthright. “It’s a fascinating time, because if we knew for certain right now that the fuel cell future was real, truly proven and commercially viable, would we want to take our asset base—which in GM’s case is 90% gasoline engines—and transition it to a diesel and hybrid asset base? Investments for brand new engines and transmissions cost hundreds of millions of dollars and pay back over 10 to 15 years. The one thing we do know about hydrogen is that it makes everything in the supply chain obsolete. You don’t need a four-cylinder or six-cylinder fuel cell plant, but a scaleable fuel cell plant. The propulsion system will have around one tenth of the number of moving parts compared to the internal combustion engine. Half of the fuel cell suppliers are non-automotive.

“The gasoline, diesel and hybrid systems are all equally attractive solutions, but what you have are three different things offering the same benefit. From the industry point of view, you are bringing a proliferation of things to market and I’m not sure that’s a formula for growing the industry. A fuel cell makes all that obsolete.”