General Motors (GM) says that the fuel cell may provide a solution to the growing demand for electricity, when, on 8 August, it unveiled a stationary generator based on its technology for automotive applications. The unit, it says, can generate clean, quiet and efficient power and could be a backup generator for subdivisions at risk of losing power because of common blackouts or could even replace standard sources for electricity in individual homes.

“We think the most likely application will be in businesses, office complexes, hospitals and new subdivisions,” said Larry Burns, GM’s vice president for research and development, and planning. “But it could easily be sized to power the average single-family home. With a fuel cell, there wouldn’t be power failures or, at the very least, the likelihood should be greatly reduced.”

The stationary unit, which runs on natural gas, methane or gasoline, converts a hydrocarbon into electricity by way of an electrochemical reaction, unlike a conventional generator that relies on combustion and produces noise, vibration and exhaust in the process. The processor extracts a high-quality stream of hydrogen from the fossil fuel to feed the fuel stack. While the unit is a 5-kilowatt stack, it could easily be sized to accommodate businesses and homes.

“Because most [US] homes are heated with natural gas, we have devised a way to extract hydrogen from natural gas for home applications,” Burns said. “We think this will be the predominant fuel for home and business applications, and would be an easy transition for consumers. It also gets people comfortable with fuel cells before they get introduced to meet the more demanding requirements of automobiles.”

GM says that fuel cells will probably be marketable in stationary applications before vehicles with natural gas being the ideal tool for the hydrogen economy in the stationary market in the same way that gasoline could be the bridge fuel for vehicles.

On the same day, the company showed off its Gen III processor packaged in a Chevrolet S-10 pickup as the world’s first petrol-fed fuel cell electric vehicle. The processor reforms petrol onboard, extracting a stream of hydrogen to send to the fuel cell stack. “When combined with our fuel cell stack, the technology has the potential to obtain 40% overall energy efficiency, which is about 50% better than a conventional internal combustion engine,” Burns commented. “This is possible because we’ve been able to reduce our processor size by a factor of three without sacrificing efficiency.”

Onboard petrol reforming is significant because all other fuel cells run on either pure hydrogen or hydrogen extracted from methanol, Burns said. “But, right now, you can’t get hydrogen or methanol at your corner gas station and it would cost hundreds of billions of dollars to create such an infrastructure,” he said (see related story). “Developing gasoline-fed fuel cells makes the technology much more attainable – even within this decade.”

GM intends to make gasoline-fed fuel cells an interim strategy until a hydrogen infrastructure is established, with driving demonstrations will be scheduled for early next year.

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