ROCHESTER, N.Y. - In a contest reminiscent of the Beta vs. VHS showdown, General Motors now believes gasoline is the best option as a source of hydrogen for fuel cells.
The strategy shift means GM likely won't be first on the market with a vehicle powered by a fuel cell. But GM says the drive to fuel cell technology is a marathon, not a sprint.
By July 1999, GM was poised to bring methanol-powered fuel cell vehicles to market. But it abandoned methanol in favor of gasoline because oil companies balked at building a distribution infrastructure for the new fuel, said J. Byron McCormick, co-executive director of GM's Global Alternative Propulsion Center.
GM's goal, McCormick said, is to be the first company to sell a million fuel cell vehicles. 'Our guidance from management is to sell millions. If there aren't millions of them out there, you haven't cleaned up the environment,' he said.
Because methanol, a petroleum byproduct, can be converted into hydrogen at lower temperatures - about 570 degrees Fahrenheit vs. about 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit for gasoline - it presents fewer problems for automotive engineers.
A number of automakers have committed to methanol for their fuel cell vehicles.
But methanol is not readily available, and no company or government agency has committed to building an infrastructure - a major obstacle in GM's view. Other disadvantages are that methanol is highly toxic and can be contaminated easily with water.
Whether an automaker uses gasoline or methanol, GM believes either fuel is merely a bridge to eventual direct storage and use of hydrogen.
The `four wins'
For any fuel cell vehicle to be successful on the market, it must offer 'four wins' for consumers, manufacturers and suppliers, according to GM:
1. Performance equal to or greater than an internal combustion engine
2. Lower emissions
3. Profits for manufacturers and suppliers
4. Profits for energy companies.
A fuel cell generates electricity from a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, and water vapor is the only emission.
Automakers are faced with a choice of storing hydgen aboard a vehicle or reforming another fuel, such as gasoline or methanol, into hydrogen.
Thad Malesh, director of the alternative systems vehicle practice for J.D. Power and Associates, says GM is making the right decision by using gasoline.
'GM is way ahead of the curve,' Malesh said. 'GM is likely to get some grief from environmentalists because they are not moving away from gasoline. But the only way to make this transition is with something consumers are comfortable with.'
On the road next year
GM has made rapid progress reducing the size and increasing the efficiency of its gasoline reformer and has stopped all methanol work. It plans to have a gasoline-powered fuel cell Chevrolet S10 pickup running by next spring and a fleet of fuel cell vehicles ready for sale to consumers by the end of the decade. Fuel mileage should be about double that of a conventional internal combustion-engine vehicle.
Much work remains to be done. GM's gasoline-powered fuel cell is only about 33 percent efficient and generates 25 kilowatts, or about 33 hp. But about 75 hp is needed to power a small car the size of a Chevrolet Cavalier.
Also, low-sulfur gasoline is a key factor to making GM's strategy work. Gasoline currently has sulfur content of 300 parts per million, but that will fall to about 30 ppm in 2004 because of recent changes in federal regulations.