Just last week, General Motors signed agreements with not one but two companies to develop applications for its Hydrotec hydrogen fuel cell systems. At first glance, this might seem a bit surprising, since last week we also saw Honda ditch its hydrogen fuel cell version of the Clarity. The move was just the latest piece of support for the hypothesis that hydrogen could join Betamax and Zune in the history books.
In fact, the history books are where you’ll find GM’s first hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle, the Electrovan of 1966. And in recent years we’ve seen fuel cell electric vehicles developed. by GM for military applications. But none of these new agreements involve the manufacture of a hydrogen car.
Instead, last Tuesday the automaker announced it would work with Wabtec – which has already developed a battery-powered electric locomotive – to design freight locomotives powered by GM’s fuel cells and batteries. Then, on Thursday, GM revealed it was working with Liebherr-Aerospace to develop aerospace applications (like auxiliary power generation) for fuel cells. Intrigued, I spoke to Charlie Freese, GM’s executive director for Global Hydrotec and head of GM’s fuel cell program. Why does the company still think that the lighter gas only has room to grow?
Why is GM developing fuel cells? Why not?
GM has invested a lot of time and billions of dollars in a new lithium-ion battery platform. So I first asked Freese why the company should care about fuel cells as well.
“Having this ability to deliver both technologies allows you to see where the technology fits best, and not having to try to force a square peg into a round hole,” Freese told Ars. “A powerful fuel cell makes a battery even more beautiful because you can operate in that state of charge window and you can do a lot of things to run more efficiently. Batteries are great for a lot of energy, and the hydrogen fuel cell is excellent. for a lot of energy on board, and both are great additions. ”
The case against hydrogen passenger cars
If I expected a defense of hydrogen passenger cars, Freese was not ready to deliver one. “The argument against hydrogen is that you don’t have hydrogen everywhere,” he said. “I can’t necessarily go and buy hydrogen around the corner. And that’s true today – except for some of the places that have invested in outlets like California – but the challenge is that they are doing it for retail customers who have a very different set of needs than those. commercial customers in the aerospace, trucking or rail sectors. “
Trying to build a network of hydrogen gas stations with similar coverage to existing gas stations would be a huge effort for very little return, given how few passenger cars each station could see on an average of a day. “They don’t know where they’re going to want it, but they want it there when they need it, and they don’t want the inconvenience or the out-of-reach anxiety of trying to search for hydrogen,” Freese said. . “It’s not a great way to cut your hydrogen costs and get the most out of your investment. “
The case of hydrogen in planes, trains and heavy goods vehicles
“Let’s not try to force this technology into the toughest things first,” Freese continued. “Let’s look for those apps where we are already solving a customer problem, and that got us into trucking. Factories and warehouses already use fuel cell forklifts today, and Freese says freight trucks could use the same refueling points.
Add in hydrogen refueling at airports and train stations with these fuel cell planes and trains – common destinations for freight leaving factories and warehouses – and you yourself have a whole ecosystem in GM’s eyes. “I’m helping one mode of transport, and it helps the other mode, my economies of scale go up, my costs go down, all from a total cost of ownership starting to make a lot more sense,” said Freese.
Predictable routes where there is a lot of regular refueling, such as rail yards and airports, could justify installing liquid hydrogen storage, especially if their forklifts and ground support vehicles are also powered by fuel cells. “Now my storage density is improving gravimetrically and volumetrically, my cost is improving and my efficiency is improving,” Freese said. “So it’s just a better way to do it. “