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GM Plugs Fuel Cells into Volt


 

 

It’s not quite a case of chicken-and-egg, but when it comes to the alternate fuel, environmentally-friendly powertrain of the future, General Motors isn’t taking any chances. Following up on the high-profile launch of its plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt concept, at January’s Detroit Auto Show, the automaker returns with an alternate take on the show car at the Shanghai Motor Show. This Volt version uses a downsized battery paired with a hydrogen-powered fuel cell.

“You have to displace petroleum,” declared Larry Burns, GM’s technology czar, in a private backgrounder prior to the Volt Fuel Cell Vehicle’s official Shanghaidebut. But which technology can be ready for market first is uncertain, so the automaker wants to prepare for a variety of options.

 

In the configuration unveiled last January, at the North American International Auto Show, the strikingly futuristic Volt prototype featured both an electric motor and an internal combustion engine. Its lithium-ion battery pack was notably larger than the nickel-metal hydride pack used in conventional hybrid-electric vehicles, and able to store enough energy to run up to 40 miles solely on battery power – charging up by plugging into the ever-present electric grid. For longer drives, the so-called plug-in hybrid would then turn to its tiny gasoline engine which would serve as a generator, rather than directly driving the vehicle’s wheels.

 

One way or the other, the long-term alternative to petroleum “is to turn to electric-drive vehicles,” said Burns. With the second version of the Volt, the lithium-ion battery pack is downsized to provide just 20 miles range. And the primary energy source is a hydrogen fuel cell stack. Fuel cells combine the lightweight gas with oxygen from the air to create current that can charge the battery or drive Volt’s electric motors.

 

In the case of the fuel cell Volt, the original, 94-horsepower motor under the hood is supplemented by a pair of 34-horsepower motors directly attached to each of the rear wheels. That would give the vehicle an electric all-wheel-drive system, which engineers contend could be made far more responsive to road, weather, and driving conditions than conventional, mechanic systems.

 

In terms of performance, a hydrogen-powered Volt would launch from 0-60 in less than 8.5 seconds – quick but certainly not sports car territory. It would be able to hit 120 mph, in short bursts, and easily maintain 100 mph.

 

In the gasoline version, Volt would get an estimated 640 miles range per fill-up. The hydrogen Volt would get 300 miles on four kilograms of hydrogen before needing to head for what would, quite literally, be a gas station. MORE--

 

 

Of course, finding one would be a problem, at least today. There are, at best, a score of hydrogen pumps around the U.S. , and not many more around the world. Creating a hydrogen production and distribution infrastructure would likely cost around $12 billion, it has frequently been reported, though GM’s Burns noted that the figure would be less than half what it would take, today, to replace the Alaskan oil pipeline.

 

There’s strong support for the use of hydrogen as a transportation alternative, largely buoyed by the fact that the only exhaust from a fuel cell vehicle is water vapor. California – which hopes to take the lead in U.S. efforts to reduce global warming gases, like CO2 – has several score of research FCVs running in fleet tests.

 

But whether a sizable number of American motorists could be convinced to actually pay for the technology is uncertain, especially before a large regional service station network is in place, acknowledged Burns. It may be easier to introduce the technology to mass use overseas, suggested George Hansen, GM’s director of fuel cell commercialization in the Asia/Pacific region.

 

With some of the world’s worst smog problems and a population rapidly acquiring automobiles, China is a particularly attractive location and one where “interest has increased quite a lot during the last three years on the Chinese (government’s) part,” Hansen said.

 

How soon either version of the Volt – or something like it – might be ready for the road is uncertain. Both approaches would require advances in lithium-ion battery technology, and a variety of industry sources say they don’t expect to see suppliers reach the necessary level of refinement until early in the next decade.

 

Meanwhile, fuel cell research is plodding along. For several years, GM has said it has spent about $1 billion on developing the technology. Pressed, Burns acknowledged it could take an equal amount to bring GM’s hydrogen power program to fruition. To be commercially viable, he explained, the technology would need to yield a system costing $50 a kilowatt of energy (about 1.4 horsepower), comparable to a typical gasoline engine. It would need to last 150,000 miles. And a vehicle would need 300 miles range with the capacity for reasonably quick refueling.

 

The Volt FCV features GM’s latest, fifth-generation fuel cell system. Among other things, it is half the size of the prior-generation stack and while no one from the automaker would provide what they see as proprietary data, it appears to be more reliable and significantly lower in cost.

 

That prompted Burns to say he is “80 percent optimistic” the design for a commercial fuel cell system will be ready by “11:59 p.m.” on December 31, 2009.

 

Backing up that optimism, GM has begun the actual engineering work on the entire system that would make up the mechanical heart of the Volt, dubbed the E-Flex system. With normal development times in the three to four-year range, Burns hinted, “You can infer the timeframe in which we believe this technology will be available.”

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