Advanced search

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.



Readers' comments (6)

  • Governments should fund development of alternatives to oil on a crisis basis, in the same way the Manhatten project was organised and developed. To leave it to individual car makers is folly. Similarly with fusion technology. Not only are we fouling the planet, but we fund our political and religious adversaries by our reliance on oil.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • I shall be somewhat more excited when I hear that someone's discovered how to mass produce and mass distribute hydrogen.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Stephen: It is already mass-produced and mass-distributed. The problem presently is that the production process is itself very energy-intensive. (There are two principal methods, and the comment applies to both.) 'Carbon equivalent' values have been quoted for some prototypes, allowing a direct comparison between a fuel-cell drivetrain and a conventional one. The challenge here is to produce hydrogen gas using renewable energy.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Mr Harvey: - you are of course quite correct. "Viable" may have been a more appropriate catch all term with regard to the production of Hydrogen but then the semi-waspish reference back to the GM corporate stance would have been lost. Last I heard there weren't any plans to provide the mass distrbution of Hydrogen to motorists but of course this might have changed and, if GM do whole-heartedly head off down this route, that may provide the impetus to get one established.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • I hope that Dr Thiesen has been made aware of the brand new work that is being done to make palladium a more practical alternative to platinum for Fuel Cells.

    If we can reduce the amount of platinum catalyst needed, then swich to a less expensive/more available element- it seems like a win-win


    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • But what if we simply eliminate platinum as a catalyst altogether? There is very promising research occurring at ACAL energy where they replaced platinum with a low-cost catalyst fluid. There are many alternatives to platinum, people just want to say that it is a major problem and not work on fixing the problem or look into the problem.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

Have your say


Related images

My saved stories (Empty)

You have no saved stories

Save this article