GM unleashes first phase of fuel cell plan

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. - General Motors believes the key to fuel cells fits in the front door before it fits in the car door.

GM has had a stationary fuel cell generating 5 kilowatts of electricity at its research lab in Honeyoe Falls, N.Y., for six months, said Larry Burns, GM's vice president of research and development. Five kilowatts is enough to power a house. GM disclosed the effort at the annual Management Briefing Seminars.

The automaker is searching for partners to help it commercialize the stationary fuel cell and begin selling it within two years, said a source close to the project who asked not to be identified.

The benefit of pushing ahead with the stationary fuel cell is it can lead to volume production of fuel cell components, which will help lower the costs of fuel cells for vehicles, Burns said.

The fuel cell generates electricity from the chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, with only water vapor as the by-product.

Because no hydrogen-refueling infrastructure exists, GM also has been developing a reformer to extract hydrogen from gasoline, natural gas or methane.

Smaller, more powerful

The prototype stationary unit is about the size of a china cabinet. But consumer versions are expected to be no bigger than a conventional air conditioner unit, he said.

Had the units been available this year, they could have helped ease California's massive energy shortages, Burns said. The fuel cell stack can easily be scaled up to provide enough power to run a 100-home subdivision or an auto factory.

GM plans to enter the market first with stationary fuel cells to:

* Establish a network of suppliers and cut parts costs as production increases.

* Gain experience with fuel cells in homes where the system stresses are less than in vehicles.

* Create a profitable business that will help offset some of the costs of developing fuel cells for automobiles. GM has committed billions of dollars to the project with the goal of becoming the first automaker to sell 1 million fuel-cell-powered vehicles.

* Get consumers accustomed to the power source before asking them to make the transition to fuel-cell-powered cars.

'We learned from the EV-1 that we can't bring technology to the market before it is ready,' Burns said.

GM officials wouldn't say how much the home-based unit would cost. But a source close to the project said it could save consumers as much as 30 percent on their power bills.

With most of the technical hurdles out of the way, GM is seeking a partner to mass-produce the unit.

It is unclear if the GM stationary fuel cell will carry a GM brand name or if GM will license the technology and outsource the complete manufacture of the unit.

Growing competition

GM likely won't be alone in the market for home fuel cells. Ballard Power Systems of Vancouver, British Columbia, also announced last week that it was testing a stationary unit that runs on hydrogen and generates 60 kilowatts.

Burns began his presentation in Traverse City by driving a Chevrolet S10 pickup powered by a gasoline-fed fuel cell, the first time it has shown a running vehicle with the gasoline reformer technology. The fuel cell stack and reformer take up about one-third of the truck's bed. Last year, the reformer was too big to bring to Traverse City, Burns said.

GM has been developing the onboard gasoline reformer to allow consumers to refuel their vehicles the same as always. BMW, Ford, DaimlerChrysler and Honda are pursuing hydrogen and other non-standard fuels.

The fuel cell stack in the S10 is smaller and generates 25 percent more power than the previous generation that GM developed last year, said Byron McCormick, executive director of GM's Global Alternative Propulsion Center.

You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@crain.com

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