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GM's first generation fuel cell system has been extensively tested by a fleet of 100 retrofitted Chevy Equinox fuel cell vehicles.  (Source: Car and Driver)

GM's second generation fuel cells are 220 lb lighter, use half the precious metals, and take up half the space of the previous generation system.  (Source: AutoBlog Green)
Despite a strong push for electric, GM isn't skimping on hydrogen, another popular "green" vehicle technology

Hydrogen is an attractive alternative fuel for the auto industry in some respects.  The technology to produce it with electricity already exists, and it would provide an ideal way to store energy from alternative energy sources such as clean nuclear fission, wind, solar, and (eventually) nuclear fusion. 

However, many obstacles remain to its commercial deployment.  One challenge is developing a production, delivery, and fueling station network capable of sustaining commercial numbers of hydrogen vehicles.  Thanks largely to Toyota and Honda, the roots of such a network have been planted in America's largest urban centers: Los Angeles, California and New York, New York. 

Now one of the American automakers is preparing to step up its efforts to solve the other key challenge -- designing vehicles capable of using hydrogen efficiently.  GM has announced plans to bring vehicles powered by the universe's most abundant gas to the market in only six years.  GM is targeting the 2016 model year for a commercial deployment of its fifth generation fuel cell system.  By the time the fifth generation lands, GM believes the system's size, cost, reliability, and capabilities will be ready for viable mass produced vehicles.

Currently, GM is wrapping up testing its second generation fuel cells.  These cells feature impressive advances over GM's first generation cells.  In total, GM's second generation fuel cell system is 220 pounds lighter than the previous generation, half the size, and uses half the precious metals, while delivering comparable power.

States Charles Freese, executive director of GM Fuel Cell Activities, "The improvements the team has been able to achieve are remarkable.  Hardware mechanization has been dramatically simplified, which will help reduce cost, simplify manufacturing and improve durability."

GM says that it has spent $1.5B USD of its own money on fuel cell vehicles, but it warns it won't be able to deploy the vehicle's commercially without government and industry-wide support.  Mr. Freese adds, "GM has invested more than $1.5 billion in fuel cell technology and we are committed to continuing to invest, but we no longer can go it alone.  As we approach a costly part of the program, we will require government and industry partnerships to install a hydrogen infrastructure and help create a customer pull for the products."

To drum up interest in fuel cell vehicles, GM has deployed 100 hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric Chevrolet Equinox midsize crossovers powered by its first generation cells.  The vehicles have been driven over 1 million miles by ordinary citizens and celebrities, since 2007.  Two DailyTech staffers drove one of these vehicles at the Consumer Electronics Show in early 2008, and came away with favorable impressions.

GM and its competitors Toyota and Honda are hoping that fuel distributors and the U.S. government support a greater U.S. deployment over the next several years.  The German government just announced plans to build 1,000 hydrogen fueling stations by 2015.  In Japan, 13 oil and gas companies have announced similar plans.  That leaves the U.S., which only has 73 existing and 44 planned stations, far behind these foreign competitors [Source].  GM has high hopes, though, that the U.S. deployment will pick up and it will catch up before 2015.

GM is also aggressively pursuing commercial electric vehicle deployment – next year it will deliver the 2011 Chevy Volt EV.

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By adiposity on 9/25/2009 6:25:35 PM , Rating: -1
However, many obstacles remain to its commercial deployment. One challenge is developing a production, delivery, and fueling station network capable of sustaining commercial numbers of hydrogen vehicles.

Those are hardly the biggest problems:

1. Fuel cells are not robust. Driving your car on a bumpy road could easily destroy them.
2. They can't handle the cold. Much of the country has temperatures that drop below freezing during part of the year. If that happens, your fuel cell car won't start.
3. Fuel cells will have to be replaced, just like batteries.
4. Fuel cells require platinum or other catalysts, which can be very expensive and rare.

So yeah, we don't have hydrogen stations all over the US. But even if we did, fuel cell cars wouldn't be a good idea. Maybe in 20 years the kinks will be worked out, but why build and infrastructure for a pipe dream?


RE: Problems
By Alexvrb on 9/25/2009 6:41:09 PM , Rating: 1
These problems you see with the latest automotive fuel cells (source please) don't seem like a bigger problem than having a fuel infrastructure in place. The vehicles themselves could very well be ready within 10 years of active development. I doubt they'll be perfect, but the same could be said of many things. Regardless, how can you expect these companies to put so much effort into completing the necessary technical feats to make a production-worthy vehicle, if you can't guarantee them an infrastructure? Who would buy one at a dealership when they discover that they have to buy their own fueling station and either have hydrogen delivered, or generate it on-site?

Now with all that said, I don't really care for hydrogen powered vehicles. I'd rather have an efficient gasoline engine, or a serial hybrid/E-REV. If we're working on technology to produce our own oil and/or direct gasoline/diesel substitutes (using bacteria or algae), I don't see the need to introduce another fuel. But I can still see their point. If the government expects them to deliver hydrogen vehicles, then the government should be prepared to pony up. I don't want this to happen, but our current crop of politicians wants to push hydrogen pretty hard - which is ironic considering how much money the corn/ethanol lobbyists have given them.

RE: Problems
By Master Kenobi on 9/25/2009 10:14:53 PM , Rating: 5
Hydrogen won't be cost effective until such time as we get off our collective asses and push nuclear power to the top of our energy production list.

RE: Problems
By Gzus666 on 9/25/2009 10:26:26 PM , Rating: 2
I personally would push fusion to the top of that list, wouldn't you? They have working plants, they just don't use them for anything productive yet. The concept has been more than proven, about time we use it as they blow nuclear power plants away.

RE: Problems
By Divide Overflow on 9/26/2009 12:58:05 AM , Rating: 3
Working fusion power plants? In what fantasy realm are you living? Yes, we have managed to sustain a fusion reaction but so far it's at a net energy loss. I don't see how they could be "used" for anything right now as they hardly "blow nuclear power plants away".

RE: Problems
By Samus on 9/26/09, Rating: 0
RE: Problems
By randomly on 9/26/2009 6:57:40 AM , Rating: 2
With high temperature nuclear reactors you can use the sulfur-iodine cycle for production of hydrogen which is much more efficient than using electricity from geothermal for the job. Electrolysis is only about 50% efficient. Geothermal does not give you high enough temperatures to drive the chemical process.

Although they are hoping to break even with the ITER fusion tokamak, the problem is one of cost. Although confidence is high, many fusion researchers don't believe that the tokamak approach will ever be able to produce energy in a cost effective mannner. It's just too expensive and too complex to run for the energy output. If fusion is going to be an energy source for us it's probably going to depend on the success of the Polywell, Focus fusion, or the Field-reversed configuration.

RE: Problems
By borismkv on 9/26/2009 2:25:03 PM , Rating: 2
Geothermal isn't feasible in all locations. Most places where geothermal *is* feasible, it's already being used. Nuclear works wherever you put it and is not utilized even remotely as well as it could be yet.

RE: Problems
By Samus on 9/26/09, Rating: 0
RE: Problems
By gerf on 9/26/2009 7:21:57 PM , Rating: 2
The most efficient geothermal merely uses steam released from the ground directly. A lot of the early wells have gone dry of steam/water. Sometimes, water can be re-injected, but even then, the original output isn't as high. Providing that much water is a problem in the dry areas where it's an issue, raising costs.

Another problem for long-term geothermal is corrosion. Geothermal waters are full of all kinds of nasty minerals and salts that are quite destructive on equipment, increasing costs yet again.

But hell, even if it's not a hydrogen answer, it should be checked out as much as possible. I'd say wind and solar have more widespread promise, but that's just my guesstimate.

RE: Problems
By axeman1957 on 9/29/2009 10:40:43 AM , Rating: 2
California is not the west coast, Washington has some of the lowest energy prices in the US due to the excess they produce.

RE: Problems
By teldar on 9/27/2009 8:25:50 AM , Rating: 3
Do you have any reasons for CLEARLY superior geothermal power? I personally believe nuclear is CLEARLY superior to ALL other possible energy sources. In the long run it is cheaper and as green as everything else.
The failure of the new plants (gen 5):None
The radioactive waste generation of the new plants: Basically none
The power generation of the new plants: OMG

RE: Problems
By slunkius on 9/28/2009 8:47:12 AM , Rating: 1
where can i see this nuclear plant producing "basically none radioactive waste"?

RE: Problems
By joos2000 on 9/27/2009 5:33:57 PM , Rating: 2
Well, it all honesty, it is not really production. It is harvesting. But sure, why not use what is already there?

RE: Problems
By randomly on 9/26/2009 7:01:57 AM , Rating: 2
There are no energy producing fusion plants. Even ITER is tiny compared to the energy output of a typical commercial reactor.
Future cost estimates for fusion power are vastly more expensive than nuclear.

Fusion doesn't blow nuclear away, it just blows.

RE: Problems
By teldar on 9/27/2009 8:27:39 AM , Rating: 2
I'm not familiar with these working fusion plants. Other than the SUN. And other STARS.

RE: Problems
By Alexvrb on 9/27/2009 1:35:38 AM , Rating: 2
I agree. What does that have to do with my post? The OP was saying that the infrastructure was a smaller concern than some technical issues with the vehicles himself, and I called bull. Regardless, I still prefer fuels that do NOT require a new infrastructure, like gasoline derived from algae/bacteria, or if necessary butanol (instead of ethanol).

RE: Problems
By segerstein on 9/27/2009 3:57:26 PM , Rating: 2
I'm sure Government Motors is going to be the greenest car company in the world. Instead of competing for the customers and profits they will be fulfilling government mandates.

CAFE should be scrapped, it's from an era when there were only a few major producers doing all types of vehicles. But it should be used in today's world of market segmentation and specialization.

Guess who's gonna pick up the tab?

RE: Problems
By segerstein on 9/28/2009 2:52:59 AM , Rating: 2
>Guess who's gonna pick up the tab?

Mr & Mrs U. S. Tax Payer

RE: Problems
By Autisticgramma on 10/2/2009 2:38:07 PM , Rating: 2
We pick up the tab regardless, just cause it says tax now removes the illusion of choice.

Some one will have to buy it, and its not free.

RE: Problems
By walk2k on 9/25/2009 9:26:02 PM , Rating: 3
As I understand it, all you need to create the fuel is water and electricity, something every gas station in the world is already hooked up for, and the machine to do it - bam instant "infastructure".

The upside of hydrogen is that it takes only MINUTES to refuel. While it takes hours and hours to recharge batteries and their range is STILL small by comparison.

RE: Problems
By Ranari on 9/25/2009 11:36:20 PM , Rating: 2
In theory, we could easily have the infrastructure to support a hydrogen economy. The US still needs to increase its own electrical output, but with nuclear fusion possibly coming online within the next 20 years, that might change. But what we don't have is an unlimited supply of water.

It was like the whole corn fuel craze. Everyone got real excited about ethanol/methanol, but it doesn't make sense to begin tampering with your food supply. Fresh water is already in critical shortage, and we want to start using it as fuel in our cars? Doesn't sound like a very bright idea to me as much as I like hydrogen.

Batteries certainly have their drawbacks too, but like I said above, with nuclear fusion and/or cleaner nuclear fission coming online within the next decade or two, at least we won't be running out of the means to recharge those batteries anytime soon.

RE: Problems
By elgueroloco on 9/26/2009 1:10:47 AM , Rating: 5
Your concern about fresh water shortage is quite unfounded. The exhaust from a hydrogen reaction is fresh, distilled water. You could include a tank on the car that stores the exhaust water and then drain it and drink it.

Also, if you are fueling from a station, the station could be selling hydrogen that was made from sea water, or at least reclaimed water. This would actually help eliminate the fresh water shortage.

RE: Problems
By TSS on 9/26/2009 8:18:44 AM , Rating: 2

let me get into the head of an devil's advocate enviromentalist doomthinker here ^^ suppose this technology became the dominant form of powering our cars.

Then alot of cars emitting water where there wasn't before... well on sunny days that water isn't going into the sewer, it'll just evaporate.

so in the city it would lead to alot more water evaporating where there wasn't any before, and more water evaporated = more rain.

more rain where there was less rain before = enviromental impact, no? :P

also fresh water might be good for us, it's less fun for salt water creatures....

RE: Problems
By Fietsventje on 9/27/2009 5:44:03 AM , Rating: 3
Just to put things in perspective:

If you burn fossil fuels, next to CO2, the main other resulting gas is H2O. Water.

RE: Problems
By blowfish on 9/26/09, Rating: -1
RE: Problems
By randomly on 9/26/2009 7:27:51 AM , Rating: 5
Unfortunately you are the one who knows jack about the subject.

He is correct.

NASA has used fuel cells for power but only in manned spacecraft where the facilities exist to maintain the temperature of the fuel cells within their operating range. They are indeed fragile. Freezing destroys them. If the membrane dries out it's destroyed. Carbon monoxide and sulfur compounds poison the fuel cell. The membranes degrade under use and currently do not last long enough for the life of a car. The NASA fuel cells are incredibly expensive and complex devices, but for space use the advantages outweigh the costs.

Fuel cells are actually extremely over marketed because of the public's perception of them as a magical 'green' pollution free, carbon free power source. This gets the companies a lot of 'green' marketing points, but the reality is not anywhere close to so rosy.

An MIT study found that even with projected improvements in fuel cells by 2020 that a simple diesel hybrid will still give better well to wheels gas mileage than a fuel cell vehicle. At a tiny fraction of the cost, with no need for trillions of dollars invested in a new hydrogen production and delivery infrastructure.

There is no economical source of hydrogen other than reforming natural gas at 80% efficiency. There is no economic or carbon advantage to using fuel cell vehicles if you are using natural gas as your feedstock.

Electrolysis is only about 50% efficient. Coupled with fuel cell efficiency of 50% and the energy cost of compressing the hydrogen for storage (another 12% energy loss) the over all efficiency of delivered energy to the car is around 20%. This is terrible compared to batteries which have an overall energy storage efficiency above 90%.
This means that the hydrogen fuel is very expensive, and it also means that until you eliminate all hydrocarbon fueled electrical generation there are better places to use your electricity than making hydrogen.

Within the bounds of currently known technology fuel cell vehicles are essentially a marketing gimmick. Yes they work, they sound good, but the economics of it do not add up.

The corn ethanol subsidies are just a red herring. Those are just farm subsidies repackaged under an 'eco' banner to make them palatable enough to get passed in congress. There is absolutely no future in corn ethanol, it is not a viable energy source and may actually take more gas to produce than it replaces. It just provides 45% of the profits of the Archer Daniels Midland corporation and costs the taxpayers Billions of dollars.

RE: Problems
By drmo on 9/28/2009 10:36:06 AM , Rating: 2
"the over all efficiency of delivered energy to the car is around 20%."

That is still better than most ICEs.
Hydrogen is meant to replace fossil fuels, not batteries. Hydrogen vehicles could end up being EVs like the Volt, with backup fuel cells rather than gas.

"This is terrible compared to batteries which have an overall energy storage efficiency above 90%."

This is not correct. Charging-discharging efficiency is about 90%. Battery to wheels efficiency is about 90%. So a total of about 81%. Still great, but keep in mind that batteries are much heavier, and thus require more energy because they have to move more weight. Hence, the best EV only goes about 100 miles per charge, compared to a fuel cell vehicle getting 270 miles per fill.

Also, electrolysis can be as high as 75%. Natural gas reformation (a renewable fuel) can be up to 85% currently. 'Waste heat' can be used for a water heater on site. Fuel cell to wheels can be as much as 60% currently. Because hydrogen is compressed (losing energy initially), some energy is 'recovered' because the fuel doesn't have to be pumped. You could even harvest the energy conceivably. (Ever hear of compressed air vehicles?)
Plus, fuel cells are lighter than batteries, so less energy is needed to propel a similarly sized vehicle.

RE: Problems
By randomly on 9/28/2009 1:25:30 PM , Rating: 2
You're comparisons are wrong.

The 20% to 90% comparison is from the well to the output of the electrical storage system, that's the output of the fuel cell or the output of the battery. That's before it goes to the motors. Which is apples to apples. The correct comparison.

You are adding in a 90% battery to wheels efficiency for the battery case, but not including it for the fuel cell. That's a faulty comparison.

True above a certain total stored energy the batteries are heavier than a fuel cell system and hydrogen tank. However because of the efficiency losses I mentioned you have to generate almost 5 times as much energy to power the fuel cell vehicle as the battery vehicle, that's 5 times the energy cost per mile for the fuel cell vehicle.

However if you go with a PHEV design like the Volt, you can limit the battery weight by sizing it for only 40-60 miles of range which covers over 80% of the daily mileage requirements for cars and couple it with a small ICE generator you can extend the total range to 500+ miles, eliminate the need for a costly hydrogen infrastructure, and get cheaper cost per mile. Since the ICE generator can be designed for constant load/constant RPM it's effeciency will be over 30%.

75% electrolysis efficiency is bogus. Please site a reference to an actual electrolysis system that achieves that efficiency.

You missed the point about reforming Natural gas. Even though it's efficiency is around 80% a fuel cell vehicle is STILL LESS EFFICIENT THAN A SIMPLE DIESEL HYBRID. So why bother with all that expense and infrastructure for less efficiency if you are going to use fossil fuels anyway.

Fuel cell{electrical supply) to wheels efficiency is irrelevant since it applies equally to PHEV, Fuel cell, or battery vehicles.
Compressing the hydrogen costs you about 12% of your total energy. You could conceivably recover some of that energy, but not a lot since it won't be an adiabatic system and there are lot of losses in the system. It also adds even more cost and complexity to recover that few percent.

As an engineer I was enthusiastic about fuel cells and hydrogen economies so I really looked into the topic. Unfortunately the more I researched the worse things got. A Hydrogen economy is no panacea, it doesn't even appear to have any advantages over other competing technologies. The economics of it don't add up. It gets a lot of press and PR but this mostly from researchers looking for grants, companies making press announcements to generate funding, hyped up articles to generate readership, and huge companies spending money on their Eco-image PR.

It's rare to find a realistic hydrogen article. Usually it's all sunshine and wonder, they just downplay or don't mention all the drawbacks. A lot of engineers don't think a hydrogen economy will ever occur because the economics of it just don't add up.

RE: Problems
By drmo on 9/28/2009 2:53:18 PM , Rating: 2
75% electrolysis efficiency.
Maybe it is bunk; I don't know.

I may have been wrong about the 60% (I had thought it was fuel cell to wheel), but then your number (50%) was wrong too, because that is closer to fuel cell to wheel, which was not included in the battery number you gave.

I did not mean to imply well-to-wheel efficiency was better for hydrogen than batteries, only to point out that there are other factors (like weight), that make batteries less efficient than they at first appear. I think it is clear that batteries will beat all other storage in terms of efficiency by a long shot.

Also, diesel is not easily renewable, so it fails to do what I said in my last post: replace fossil fuels. Maybe the algae thing will work on a large scale, maybe not. Diesel cannot be produced from excess electricity either. Diesel emissions also are linked to cancer:

Personally, I think the Volt-like system is the way to go, rather than pure EV, but to get away from fossil fuels, then diesel and gas will probably need to be replaced. Biological production of these will only go so far, and the infrastructure to make enough biodiesel and biopetrol is probably more than is needed to set up hydrogen production by photovoltaic/ electrolysis/natural gas reformers at many gas stations.

Also, keep in mind, that hydrogen is a long-term solution, not immediate: from the oft-quoted MIT study:

“If auto systems with significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions are required in, say, 30 to 50 years, hydrogen is the only major fuel option identified to date,” said Heywood.

RE: Problems
By randomly on 9/28/2009 6:37:21 PM , Rating: 2
I'm dubious of those claims of 75%. They don't really tell you how it was measured or what the reference was. Was it compared to the lower or higher heating value of hydrogen etc. You have to be careful of the definitions and measurement techniques. Find an actual working electrolyzer system.

None of the values I gave included to the wheel values. They are only from energy source to the electric output at the fuel cell or battery. Including to the wheel values just obscures the comparison between the fuel cell and batteries because the size, weight, design of the cars has so much impact on the end result and the cars used are never the same.

My point is that the over all efficiency of a hydrogen economy is so low and the cost so high that it's not an economically viable approach with technology that can be forseen in the next 20 years.

If even the real experts and fuel cell companies like Ballard Power Systems don't have any faith in the automotive fuel cell market, they probably know what they are talking about. Ballard pulled out of the hydrogen vehicle sector of it's business in 2007.

Research Capital analyst Jon Hykawy concluded that Ballard saw the industry going nowhere and said: "In my view, the hydrogen car was never alive. The problem was never could you build a fuel cell that would consume hydrogen, produce electricity, and fit in a car. The problem was always, can you make hydrogen fuel at a price point that makes any sense to anybody. And the answer to that to date has been no.

RE: Problems
By drmo on 9/28/2009 3:00:51 PM , Rating: 2
Oh, this looks good:

For wells-to-wheel comparisons. This puts diesel hybrid at 33%, EV at 66%, and hydrogen fuel cells at 22%.

Notably, they don't add in hybrid for fuel cells (all hydrogen vehicles are hybrids), and use somewhat lower numbers for fuel cell efficiency and electrolysis than I have seen, but this is from 2003.

RE: Problems
By drmo on 9/28/2009 3:04:08 PM , Rating: 2
Oops, that diesel number is for SOFC.

RE: Problems
By drmo on 9/28/2009 4:36:42 PM , Rating: 2
Also, according to this, the Honda FCX gets 60% tank to wheel efficiency:
Maybe they misunderstood the info....

RE: Problems
By sleepeeg3 on 10/4/2009 2:04:33 PM , Rating: 2
You are wasting your time. Most liberals never see the big picture. They only see one portion that agrees with what they want to see. "Oh it burns a harmless gas and creates water? Magic! All of our problems are solved!"

You are dead on about ethanol and electric, I only assume you are right about the rest. Last I heard, hydrogen was a dead technology anyway and I thought Government Motors was abandoning it. This is probably their new government appointed CEO using it as a ruse for more taxpayer money.

RE: Problems
By mars2k on 9/26/2009 11:04:46 AM , Rating: 1
Problems mentioned above can be solved. After all, haven't we used exspensive catatalysts in the catalytic converters placed downstream of every combustion engine on the road today?

That aside as for ramping up the infrastructure. There are companies today that are making Hydrogen hydrolysis modules that are no larger than large washing machines. The company supplying the onsite hydrolysis modules for photovoltaic stations built in California has an entire line up of products it would love to sell to anybody that wants it. They evan produce self contained backup power sources for commercial buildings that are hydrogen based.

Honda's pilot fuel cell program also includes a home refueling module that splits natural gas. In spite of the methane use this complete system produces far less CO2 than the same size internal combustion vehicle.

The Hydrogen economy is coming and it does not include foreign oil.

RE: Problems
By Reclaimer77 on 9/26/2009 7:38:46 PM , Rating: 4
Maybe in 20 years the kinks will be worked out, but why build and infrastructure for a pipe dream?

Because GM isn't a company who needs to make a profit. They are a Government entity that the taxpayers have been forced to prop up no matter how much money they lose or how cockeyed their ideas are.

"I'm an Internet expert too. It's all right to wire the industrial zone only, but there are many problems if other regions of the North are wired." -- North Korean Supreme Commander Kim Jong-il

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