It’s been said many a time that the problem with hydrogen as an energy storage system for cars is that it is always the future and never the present of transportation. Indeed, hydrogen has nearly fallen of the alt-fuel radar in recent years, as present-techs like hybrid and even electric drive have matured. But the dream is not dead. The great hydrogen hope now lives with General Motors, in the form of a new, lighter-weight fuel cell which GM says will be production-ready by 2015. The new cell is 225 lbs lighter and uses one-third less platinum than the systems being tested in GM’s 30-month “Project Driveway” Equinox fuel-cell vehicles (FCVs). That leaves more platinum for trimming Escalades, and has GM thinking that real-life series production of FCVs could be possible. GM’s Charles Freese tells Automotive News [sub]:
Our learning from Project Driveway has been tremendous. 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. We will continue to use the Project Driveway fleet strategically to advance fuel cell technology, hydrogen infrastructure and GM’s vehicle electrification goals
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
GM doesn’t specify the origins of this latest generation of hydrogen fuel cell, but it’s likely the product of Germany-based GM program which is currently testing the HydroGen4, a Pontiac Torrent-based testbed for GM’s latest fuel-cell technology. An Auto Motor und Sport test of the HydroGen4 showed that between 150 and 200 miles of range can be expected, with a 0-60 time of about ten seconds and a top speed of 100 MPH. The system stores hydrogen at 700 BAR, and also uses a NiMh battery to store energy from a regenerative braking system. Refueling could take as little 3 minutes at a fixed station, but it took a good 15 minutes for AM und S using a mobile fuel tanker provided by GM.
At €500k to €1m per unit, the cost-per-performance is still wildly undercompetitive with battery EVs. Though GM is touting a reduction in platinum content, the catalyst was the major weak point in the system when AM und S tested the HdroGen4 just over a year ago. At the time, GM’s Larry Burns noted that
Although the HydroGen4 uses the fourth generation of fuel cell, it will still need about three more development cycles before it’s truly production-ready. Hydrogen fuel cells will only be a true alternative in the 2016-2018 timeframe.
So, what’s changed that makes GM so optimistic about hydrogen? There’ are no details yet on the technical front, but Europe’s dirty electricity-generating mix (which limits EVs C02 benefits) is creating government incentives to develop fuel-cell alternatives there. The Clean Energy Program already has Toyota hyping hydrogen, so it’s likely that GM wants in on that government-funded action. Meanwhile the biggest concern with FCVs is refueling. According to GM’s calculations, it would cost $11.7b to create an effective hydrogen refueling network in the USA. If GM expects our government to fund that project, it will probably be waiting quite a while for that amount to shake free from DC’s overburdened budgets.