General Motors takes fuel cells closer to commercialisation

Committing to a promise that the company would have a working demonstration of fuel cell technology by early 2002, General Motors (GM) has unveiled the world’s first gasoline fuel processor for fuel cell propulsion.

Larry Burns, GM’s vice president of research and development introduced the Gen III processor, packaged in a Chevrolet S-10 pickup, at the University of Michigan Automotive Briefing Seminar in Traverse City, Michigan. The Gen III reforms ‘clean’ gasoline onboard, extracting a stream of hydrogen to send to the fuel cell stack. The Gen III gasoline processor is capable of starting in less than three minutes compared to the previous 15-minute start times and has a peak efficiency of 80 %.

Onboard gasoline reforming is significant because all other fuel cells run on either pure hydrogen or hydrogen extracted from methanol for which it would cost hundreds of billions of dollars to create the necessary infrastructure. GM intends to make gasoline-fed fuel cells an interim strategy until a hydrogen infrastructure is established. Driving demonstrations will be scheduled for early next year.

The S-10 also features GM’s Stack 2000, which generates electricity cleanly and efficiently from the hydrogen and oxygen fed to it, which is the same stack technology GM used to set 11 endurance records for vehicles powered by fuel cells earlier in the year when GM’s HydroGen1 completed 862 miles in a 24-hour endurance run at the company’s desert testing grounds in Arizona. The S-10 fuel cell generates 25 kilowatts, which translates roughly into 33hp. The truck’s fuel processor and stack combine to power a battery charger for the vehicle’s electric drivetrain.

GM also unveiled a stationary power unit capable of powering a house that may have lost electricity because of a blackout. The prototype stationary unit – capable of running on natural gas, methane or gasoline – incorporates the same fuel processor and stack technology used on the S-10 to convert gasoline into a high-quality stream of hydrogen that powers the fuel cell. The processor extracts a high-quality stream of hydrogen from the fossil fuel to feed the fuel stack. The hydrogen is then combined with oxygen from the air to generate power. While the unit is a 5-kilowatt stack, it could easily be sized to accommodate businesses and homes, GM says.

“Of course there’s a long way to go on several fronts,” Burns commented. “We are, after all, undertaking a historic change in transportation and propulsion technology. However, we’re very encouraged by our rapid rate of progress and the exciting benefits of fuel cell vehicles.”

Less than two weeks before, researchers unveiled a fuel cell which can use conventional diesel, and produces water, carbon dioxide and heat (see related story).

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