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GM turns up heat on fuel cells

General Motors officials are so confident in their stationary fuel cell that they are ready to show it off by plugging it in the most famous home of all: the White House.

2001 Management Briefing Seminars index
"I'm not sure the security people would go for that," said Larry Burns, GM's vice president of research and development.

During a Tuesday press conference at the Management Briefing Seminars, GM showed a china cabinet-sized stationary fuel cell that has been generating electricity for the automaker's fuel cell research facility near Rochester, N.Y., since February.

Fuel cells generate electricity from the chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, while emitting only water vapor.

"We have had discussions on the next facility that could be used," Burns said. No decision has been made, but Burns said the five-kilowatt unit could be scaled up to provide electricity for an auto assembly plant.

Burns drove into the press conference in the world's first gasoline-powered fuel cell vehicle, a Chevrolet S10. The fuel cell stack and gasoline reformer take up half of the space in the truck's bed. The motor and electric controller are under the hood.

"Last year, I couldn't bring the reformer here, it was too big," Burns said.

Fuel cells for homes and vehicles will continue to shrink while the amount of power they produce will increase as engineers and scientists build each new generation, Burns said.

By the time GM is ready to market its stationary fuel cell in about three years, it likely will be the size of a home air conditioning unit, Burns said. By 2010, when fuel cells for autos are ready for mass production, the electricity-producing stack likely will be smaller than today's internal combustion engine.

"That frees up real estate and makes things such as (drive, brake and steer) by-wire possible. Maybe the real issue is the great vehicles that could be invented," he said.

By marketing stationary fuel cells first, GM expects to drive down the cost of producing them for autos. Another benefit, Burns said, is that it will get consumers used to the new technology.

But GM will have competition. Soon after GM introduced its stationary fuel cell Tuesday, Ballard Power Systems of Vancouver, British Columbia, announced it was testing a hydrogen powered stationary fuel cell that generates 60 kilowatts.

You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@crain.com

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