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On the right is GM's fourth generation fuel cell stack, used in the 2007 Equinox FCV. On the left is the dramatically shrunk, lighter fuel cell, which still outputs the same power.  (Source: GM via Treehugger)

The old Equinox engine with its fuel cell system is seen on the left, with the petite new system on the right.  (Source: GM via Treehugger)
Company plans to sell vehicles with the system by 2015

Is the automotive market ready for fuel cell vehicles?  Is it even ready for electric vehicles?  

In both cases GM thinks the answer is "yes" and it is leading the charge to deploy these technologies.  The 2011 Chevy Volt, set to launch later this year, will be the first mass market electric vehicle to be sold in the U.S. (past EVs saw limited distribution).  And GM announced today that it was beginning testing of production-intent fuel cells in preparation for a 2015 fuel cell (FC) vehicle launch.

In 2008, we tested GM's Equinox FC vehicles on the roads of Las Vegas.  Since then the fleet has logged the most miles of any fuel cell fleet GM is aware of -- 1.3 million everyday miles in total.

GM has applied those lessons to make a dramatically improved next generation fuel cell systemdesign.  The design is 220 pounds lighter, is about half the size, and uses only about a third of the precious platinum that the 2008 cells used (80 grams used in the old stack, 30 g in the new stack).

Charles Freese, executive director of GM's Global Fuel Cell Activities states, "Our learning from Project Driveway has been tremendous and these vehicles have been very important to our program.  The 30 months we committed to the demonstration are winding down, but we will keep upgrades of these vehicles running and will continue learning from them while we focus efforts on the production-intent program for 2015."

The launch of official testing of the new design will coincide with the wind down of GM's 2007 project, dubbed "Project Driveway".  Elaborates Freese, "Some of the 119 fuel cell electric vehicles in Project Driveway will receive hardware and software upgrades and will become part of a technology demonstration program with the U.S. Department of Energy. Others will be driven by businesses and a few will be used to continue showing that, with proper fueling infrastructure, hydrogen fuel cells are a viable alternative to gasoline-powered vehicles.  We will continue to use the Project Driveway fleet strategically to advance fuel cell technology, hydrogen infrastructure, and GM's vehicle electrification goals."

Stephanie White, a fuel cell advocate who was among the first Project Driveway participants and is an avid blogger on hydrogen in the automotive sector, was the first individual to receive a long-term loan of the next generation fuel cell vehicle.  

She describes her past experiences, stating, "Driving the Chevy fuel cell around LA has been an amazing experience.  People are always stopping me to ask questions about the vehicle and I tell them how powerful and eco-friendly it is."

Durability remains a concern for the cells.  They currently are good for about 80,000 miles.  GM hopes to bump that to 120,000 miles by 2015.  GM also hopes to get the amount of platinum used in the stack under 10 g, while maintaining equivalent power.  By 2015 the company plans on producing about 10,000 fuel cell vehicles a year.

GM still faces significant challenges even if it can produce a moderately affordable fuel cell design.  Foremost is the lack of hydrogen infrastructure.  With no infrastructure in place throughout much of the country, FC vehicles may only be able to operate in limited areas like New York and California.


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RE: Hydrogen creation efficiency?
By JediJeb on 3/18/2010 4:16:16 PM , Rating: 2
So overall it is a draw between the fuel cell and gasoline in terms of efficiency right now?

If that is true, then the only hindrance is infrastructure. This can be overcome just as when gasoline vehicles first came into being, since before automobiles were popular there really weren't gas stations on every corner. If you start with small pockets of hydrogen fueling stations and the popularity of the fuel cell vehicles grows around them, then there will be a drive to expand. I don't see them taking off tomorrow, but just like people said nobody would ever want a computer in their homes, I think the same will eventually work out with these.

Maybe we are looking at things the wrong way. If demand for hydrogen for fuel cells can drive a demand for hydrogen production from nuclear power plants, that will drive the building of new nuclear power plants. For those wanting us to switch to nuclear power, maybe we should be pushing these fuel cell vehicles instead of just trying fight the negative beliefs about nuclear power? If you make it more profitable to build a nuclear power plant instead of a coal power plant, guess which ones the energy companies will want to build.

There is also the option that if these fuel cells will run off syn gas then maybe we can power them from garbage that would be going into landfills. The articles here recently showed a lot of promise in this, and it would not only help get us of oil, but reduce the amount of garbage going into landfills. Just something else to think about.

RE: Hydrogen creation efficiency?
By porkpie on 3/18/2010 5:07:03 PM , Rating: 2
"So overall it is a draw between the fuel cell and gasoline in terms of efficiency right now?"

No. Fuel cells are much more efficient. The OP's figure of ~70% operating efficiency is correct...but a gas-powered ICE generally averages around 25% over its entire RPM range. And both engines will experience the same in transmission/coupling losses.

The hindrance now isn't infrastructure; its cost. H2 still is much more expensive than gasoline...even if you build a "hydrogen highway" infrastructure, you'll have to subsidize the actual fuel to get people to buy it.

"So if you want to save the planet, feel free to drive your Hummer. Just avoid the drive thru line at McDonalds." -- Michael Asher

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