HONEYOYE, N.Y. - General Motors may be letting other automakers grab the fuel cell publicity limelight, but the company is making serious progress in the shadows.
Since showing an Opel Zafira fuel cell prototype at the Paris auto show last fall, GM has made few announcements related to fuel cells.
But the company is testing new fuel cell designs that are smaller, lighter and more efficient, and able to work in extremes of temperature.
GM also has linked up with 60 suppliers to conduct joint research and this year established a development agreement with Toyota Motor Corp. The two giants are sharing technical information and innovations.
The company expects to begin mass producing fuel cell vehicles in 2003 or 2004, said Byron McCormick, co-executive director of GM's Global Alternative Powertrain Center.
GM's low-key approach contrasts with that of DaimlerChrysler and Ford Motor Co., which are developing a fuel cell with Ballard Power Systems of Vancouver, British Columbia. DaimlerChrysler is committed to mass production by 2003, and the trio will furnish 45 vehicles to a demonstration program in California starting in 2001.
LOW-KEY SKUNK WORKS
GM, on the other hand, has been working quietly to complete a $30 million transformation of a vacant warehouse in this rural upstate New York town into a fuel-cell skunk works.
The building, at the edge of a meadow about 25 miles from Rochester, has no GM sign and no bullet-shaped prototypes parked in the driveway. No visible clues suggest its purpose.
About 130 people have been working there since February. Combined with facilities in Detroit and Germany, which are concentrating on adapting fuel cells to vehicles, GM has assigned about 300 people to work on the technology.
The company believes fuel cells must become as durable and user-friendly as today's internal combustion vehicles.
Protons pass through the sheet, just one-thousandth of a millimeter thick, but electrons stay behind like used grinds. The electrons create an electrical current, powering the vehicle's electric devices.
One major glitch is the fuel cell's dependence on water. It is both an ingredient in the reforming process that makes hydrogen from other fuels and a principal component in the exhaust.
In cold weather, ice can clog the narrow channels that allow the gases to circulate inside the fuel cell. Those clogged channels can stop the electrochemical reaction.
The cell itself could take half an hour or more to reach operating temperature, forcing automakers to consider expensive auxiliary power systems for cold climates.
GM is developing new materials and start-up algorithms to slash warm-up time.
At minus-4 degrees Fahrenheit, GM's newest fuel cell design takes 15 to 20 seconds to begin making power and six minutes to achieve full output.
The fuel cell, which is about the size of a large microwave oven, can generate 120 kilowatts of power, which is equivalent to an engine with 160 hp.
GM is aiming for instant start-up at minus-40 degrees, an industry benchmark for internal combustion engines.
The company also has plans to halve the size of the unit and is working to bring manufacturing costs of about $18,000 closer to the $3,000 to $4,000 cost of a conventional 160-hp engine.
The link with Toyota has become crucial in determining the outcome of the fuel cell race, McCormick said. With their combined resources, they stand a chance of beating others to volume production, he thinks.
'We represent almost a quarter of the world's total automotive volume working on this technology.'