Although there likely will be few, if any, public places to buy hydrogen seven years from now, General Motors is sticking to its plan to mass produce fuel cell cars by 2010.
U.S. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham, in a recent speech to the Detroit Economic Club, said the government believes fuel cell vehicles and a hydrogen-refueling infrastructure would be ready no sooner than 2015 to 2020. But Larry Burns, GM vice president for research and development and planning, says infrastructure will not delay its goal for 2010.
"My view on the infrastructure is pretty simplistic," Burns says. "It's an appliance. You can create the hydrogen today in your garage if you want, with electrolyzers and natural gas reformers. If infrastructure means how do you create hydrogen and put it in a car, I don't think that will be a showstopper."
GM is spending more than $100 million a year to develop a production version of its Hy-Wire fuel cell vehicle. Its goal is to be the first automaker to produce 1 million fuel cell vehicles and sell them profitably.
The automaker also has developed a prototype hydrogen refueling system that could fit in a garage. The system uses natural gas, for which a home supply infrastructure already exists, as the feed stock to be converted to hydrogen. That hydrogen could refuel a vehicle, as well as power a stationary fuel cell to provide electricity for the home.
That view of the refueling infrastructure is a change from GM's position 18 months ago, when the automaker was focusing on reforming gasoline into hydrogen on board the vehicle. At the time, GM said the strategy was the best way to speed the adoption of fuel cell vehicles by taking advantage of the existing refueling infrastructure. It showcased its technology in a prototype vehicle based on the Chevrolet S10 pickup.
But putting the reformer in the vehicle increases vehicle weight and complexity.
Since the technology for reforming gasoline and natural gas is similar, GM believes the best place for the reformer is off the vehicle, a spokesman says.
GM's shift in thinking was demonstrated with the AUTOnomy and Hy-Wire fuel-cell concept vehicles. The Hy-Wire concept uses two high-pressure storage tanks for its hydrogen supply.
Cost a key challenge
Reducing the cost of the fuel cell powertrain by a factor of 10 is a higher priority than the fueling issue, Burns says.
Fuel cells generate electricity via a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, with water as the main byproduct.
Fuel cell vehicles could reduce the nation's dependence on imported oil and reduce harmful emissions. The Department of Energy forecasts a 47 percent increase in oil use by 2025, which could see the country's dependence of imported oil jump from 54 percent today to 68 percent in 2025, Abraham said.
President Bush's proposal to increase spending on hydrogen and fuel cell research to $1.7 billion over five years also includes money to develop the hydrogen fuel infrastructure. The estimated cost to outfit one gasoline station with hydrogen refueling equipment is between $500,000 and $1 million, according to fuel giant BP America.
Says Abraham: "We've concluded that unless we work on parallel tracks, developing the vehicle and the infrastructure concurrently instead of consecutively, this process could take three decades or longer."