By on April 12, 2012

The autoblogosphere is buzzing with news of an explosion in an electric vehicle battery testing facility at General Motors’ Tech Center in Warren, outside of Detroit. This isn’t the first time that the Tech Center has been the site of an explosion involving alternative energy. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the domestic automakers have invested many millions of dollars trying to develop alternatives to gasoline power over much of the second half of the 20th century. Almost 50 years before Toyota introduced the hybrid Prius and Honda started making the FCV hydrogen fuel cell powered car, General Motors was working on cars and trucks powered by fuel cells or batteries. Not all of that R&D proceeded without incident.

Inspired by the compact fuel cells developed for the United States’ space effort, in the mid 1960s Dr. Craig Marks led a team of GM researchers in developing a hydrogen fuel cell powered electric vehicle. GM had already introduced the Electrovair, a Corvair converted to electric power and the original intention was to make a fuel cell powered Corvair. A car, though, requires much more current than a spacecraft and Marks’ team soon realized that they’d have to use a larger vehicle as a test mule. At the time, GM made a small van called the Handyvan which had sufficient space for the compressed hydrogen tank and other equipment. Despite that extra space, the new equipment took up so much room that the finished “Electrovan” was just a two-seater. That equipment included two super-cooled tanks, one for liquid hydrogen and one of liquid oxygen, 550 feet of copper piping, and 32 Union Carbide fuel cells, each capable of putting out 5 kilowatts for a total of 160kw.

Most of the Electrovan's cargo space was taken up by the hydrogen (red), oxygen (green), and fire retardant (black) tanks.

The Electrovan was a measured success, at least for a proof of concept. It had a top speed of 70 mph with a range of ~120 miles. Acceleration was sedate: 0-60 in 30 seconds. While that level of performance might have been good enough for an urban delivery van, the Electrovair was far from practical. Not only did the new “powertrain” take up most of the cargo capacity, it was also heavy, weighing twice as much as a standard Handyvan, explaining how a 240 horsepower small van could be so slow. It was also very expensive, since the system relied on several rare metals including platinum. The term “cost prohibitive” is applicable.

Electrovan being tested on the grounds of the GM Tech Center.

While as a proof of concept the Electrovan worked well enough to publicize, besides the bulk and mass of the system there were practical barriers to putting it into production. For safety reasons, the Electrovan included a large container filled with fire retardant in the event of gas or chemical leaks. Those leak and fire concerns were real, with Dr. Marks describing “brilliant fireworks” when the hydrogen leaks would flare up. Of even greater safety concern was the high pressure hydrogen storage tank. All the press events for the Electrovan took place at the Tech Center. Back in the day, the Electrovan never left the Tech Center. That’s because GM had concerns about driving it on public roads.

Those concerns, like those about leaks and fires were well warranted. Every account of the Electovan’s story includes the fact that while testing the Electrovan on the Tech Center’s roadways, a compressed hydrogen tank exploded. Nobody was injured but the explosion sent shrapnel and debris flying over a quarter mile from the explosion site.

Due to those legitimate safety concerns, and the lack of a hydrogen infrastructure for refueling the Electrovan project never really went anywhere. The fuel cell vehicle was just about forgotten, with the Electrovan sitting in storage until rising oil prices made alternative energy sexy again. Since then the electric van has been cleaned up and put on display, next to the Electrovair, at the General Motors Heritage Center.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS



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15 Comments on “Blast From The Past: The Story Of The GM Tech Center And The Electrovan Explosion...”

  • avatar

    The Volt for its time.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t know about that. At least the Volt managed to stumble its way into mass production.

    • 0 avatar

      What I liked best about the Electrovan were the helpful attachments, that let you get at dust on the drapes, under the couch, and how powerful the motor was so that it would get at all the dust and crumbs stuck in corners. I think it came with a shag carpeting rake too, didn’t it?

      Grandma bought hers from an Electrovan salesman that used to go door to door. Ah, the good old days!

      Now the Volt was different. Instead of going door to door, we had a president do the selling, taking money out of my paychecks for a down payment without my permission, and then those Volts burst into flames when you got Christmas tree tinsel caught in the fan belts.

  • avatar

    The current (heh) brouhaha is misdirected. The headline should be: Two Injured At GM Facility Due To Inadequate Precautions While Testing Battery to Destruction.

    You can search for other battery explosions – you’ll find several after wading through the links to the one at GM, from small special purpose batteries to one involving a much larger battery than anything the car manufacturers play with. Research is dangerous. That picture of the GM battery undergoing testing in a previous entry isn’t confidence inspiring.

  • avatar

    Never mind the drivetrain, I love the styling of that vehicle. Clean, simple, 100% utilitarian and yet strangely appealing. The front has an anthropomorphic quality to it that I really like.

    • 0 avatar

      The GMC Handivan was a regular mass produced vehicle. It, and the original Ford Econoline share a lot of that elegant simplicity. The Corvair Greenbrier and Dodge A-100 (Like Murilee’s) were not so cleanly styled.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree. That is a cool looking van. I love the blue too. Looks like the same blue that was on my 67 Chevelle Malibu. Same blue vinyl seat upholstery as well.

      I bet a modern retro version of this van minus the hydrogen would sell pretty well.

      And is the red car next to it a 68′ Chevelle?

      Oh GM, what happened to you? At one point in history, you held captive just about everyone’s imagination.

      • 0 avatar

        My ’65 Impala was the same blue, inside and out. Maybe its just my generation and my opinion only, but the early-mid 1960’s was the pinnacle of automotive styling, except for Chrysler. ’61 Lincoln Continental and Jag XKE, ’63 Corvette and Riviera, ’64 Mustang, ’65 Corvair and GM B-bodies, ’66 GM A-bodies and Porsche 911, ’67 Camaro and GM trucks were my all-time favorites from that era. I love my ’50’s designed Karmann Ghia, along with a few other European cars, but the US stuff looked like inverted bathtubs or were just too weird.

      • 0 avatar

        My favorite was the 64 to 66 chevy trucks. I was at a chevy dealer a few months back, and they had roped off in the showroom a 64 with something like 8K miles on the odometer. Other than being lowered a bit, the truck was bone stock and gorgeous. Wood slated bed and all. It may have been repainted. I can’t remember what the salesman told me. And no, the truck was not for sale.

        With an exception or two, I never really liked the styling direction at Ford and Chrysler. It always seemed like they were playing follow the leader with GM. GM had some massive talent working for them. I do dig the 63 riviera, but always felt its cousin the gran prix was a little bit classier.

        Id say the mid to late 60s were the pinnacle of auto design. With GM clearly the leader. My opinion and my opinion only. But dang, even their buses and big trucks from that era were awesome looking.

        If I recall correctly, a new design chief took the helm in the 1970 or something. So it was all downhill from there.

  • avatar

    Is that an original cutaway drawing, or a modern one? I’m always in awe of pre-CAD drawings—someone had to sweat to make that.

    • 0 avatar

      We had a whole Perspective Drafting group at Rockwell’s Aircraft division before 3-D CAD took hold. That van is very simple compared to a B-1 bomber with all the structure shown.

    • 0 avatar

      I think it’s a period drawing, perhaps a concept, because the layout of the tanks in the actual Electrovan is slightly different.

      Some cutaway artists still work by hand. Others using digital media. Cutaway drawings and actual cutaways have been part of the auto industry from the very beginning. I like cutaway drawings and make a point to feature photos of actual cutaways I find at auto shows and museums over at Cars In Depth. Here are some illustrators I’ve found:

      I guess David Kimble is the preeminent cutaway artist. He’s publishing a book of his work later this year.

      More general subject cutaways:

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    It looks like GM was trying to copy the fuel supply from the space program too closely. Liquid oxygen is needed in space for the obvious reason that there is no oxygen in the vacuum of space so you need to bring your own O2 for the fuel cells and breathing.
    There is plenty of O2 in the atmosphere so you don’t need to bring your own oxygen supply in a car. I suspect that the fuel cells were designed to run with pure O2 so GM had to provide a pure O2 supply for them. Better to redsign the fuel cell to run on air, but this was probably quicker.

    • 0 avatar

      Back on earth, though, the air is so polluted that you don’t want to use it for the oxygen source. You’ll clog up your million dollar fuel cell membrane pretty quickly.

  • avatar

    Whatever happened to the Honda Clarity? It’s still on Hondas website, but I haven’t heard of any real work being done in hydrogen in the last few years.

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