GM to streamline production of fuel-cell systems

General Motors (GM) hopes to slash the costs of its hydrogen fuel cells by 75 per cent as it targets a significant rise in alternative fuel vehicle sales by 2015.

The US-based car manufacturer, which owns Vauxhall and Opel in Europe, plans to develop new production methods to halve the size, weight and number of parts of the company’s fuel-cell system (FCS) while more than tripling its lifetime.

Engineers at the firm’s fuel-cell engineering centre in Mainz-Kastel, Germany, are also involved in research to cut the amount of platinum catalyst used by each system to less than 30g.

GM’s next generation of hydrogen cars will build on the technological breakthroughs made by the company’s HydroGen4 model, of which 100 units have been produced at a cost of around €500,000 (£424,000) each.

‘We know what the technical architecture should be like, now we have to look for how to mass produce the cars to get the costs down,’ GM Europe’s hydrogen and fuel-cell deployment strategy manager, Dr Lars Peter Thiesen, told The Engineer.

He said that, by 2015, GM hopes to be ready to produce several thousand fuel-cell cars a year for around 25 per cent of the current costs for each FCS.

Hydrogen fuel-cell cars only emit water vapour, so could become an invaluable tool in attempts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions if a non-polluting way of producing enough hydrogen can be developed.

They have the advantages of longer range and shorter refuelling time than battery-powered electric vehicles – the HydroGen4 can travel up to around 200 miles on a tank of hydrogen and takes less than three minutes to fill up.

However, the high costs and limited durability of fuel-cell technology have so far prevented hydrogen cars from appearing on the roads outside of limited trials.

GM plans to address these issues by redesigning its FCS to integrate many of the parts within a smaller system, reducing the mass from 240kg to less than 130kg.

The firm hopes a better voltage recovery and a specifically designed humidity control system will also help increase the fuel cell’s lifetime from less than 50,000km and 1,500 hours to around 200,000km and 5,500 hours.

Almost half the costs of the fuel cell are tied up in the platinum used as a catalyst. GM hopes to reduce the amount of platinum used in each FCS from 80g to 30g by combining it with nickel to form alloy nanoparticles.

Further developments could also see the use of much larger nanoparticles with a thin platinum-alloy coating and an affordable material core.

While new engineering and manufacturing methods will cut the cost of the FCS, mass production will also bring down the car’s overall price tag from the handmade premium of each HydroGen4.

‘The best method is to bring the technology together with an existing model so that we don’t have to develop the car as well and we can produce it on the same production line as ordinary cars,’ said hydrogen and fuel-cell research strategy manager Dr Rittmar von Helmolt.

If successful, GM’s plans could establish the company’s place as one of the leading manufacturers in the fuel-cell sector. Toyota has revealed similar ambitions to commercialise a hydrogen vehicle by 2015, while Honda currently leases 30 of its FCX Clarity fuel-cell cars in the US and Japan.

GM/Opel is also part of a 13-company consortium formed in Germany to develop hydrogen vehicle technology and infrastructure, which includes Shell, BMW, Ford, Toyota and Volkswagen.