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General Motors Fuel Cell Future
NSAP Interviews



I have been working very hard lately on getting another interview for the GMI Editorial. After many phone calls and E-Mails, I was successful. Since gas prices are so high and keep rising, I thought that it was appropriate to interview someone at General Motors in the alternative fuel department. I was fortunate enough to get an interview with Tim Vail, Fuel Cell Director for General Motors. The interview took place on Thursday via telephone. This is hopefully the start of many awesome things we want to bring to the GMI Editorial, including more interviews.

What follows is a compressed essay style version of the full interview:

We know that lately every car company has been pumping out hybrid vehicles, but General Motors has yet to mass-produce any. Could it be that The General is ahead of time and forgetting about hybrids? Not necessarily. There is a lot of controversy about whether or not fuel cells are the right way to go for future fuel efficiency, but GM firmly believes that it is the right way to go. By spending billions of dollars on the program, they are proving that.

Just because GM is spending a lot of time and money on fuel cells does not mean that they are forgetting about hybrids. By the year 2006, GM is going to have high-volume hybrid GM trucks, not just a few like today. GM’s is using hybrids as a “stepping-stone” for future fuel cells vehicles to come along. Along side the hybrids GM will have Displacement On Demand (DOD) on 2005 SUV’s, which give the vehicles 10-15% better fuel economy.

Will we lose performance with fuel cells? With the fuel cells that GM is developing, more than likely they will not lose any power, if anything, they will gain power! With a fuel cell there is electric traction, which produces torque which would allow for more normal-like power in the vehicles.

Are they all going to be spaced-out / weird designs?” Another thing that worries people about fuel cells is that the ones we have seen are not really the most beautiful designs. There's no need to worry, according to GM, they can put a fuel cell into normal-looking vehicles. Another option is to use the “skateboard platform” like the Autonomy concept. If that was the case, a consumer would be able to have the vehicle custom-built to a choice of many configurations. Another effect that a fuel cell has on a vehicle’s design is that it allows more room on the vehicle. Because a fuel cell is much smaller than a combustion engine, the vehicle can use the room that the combustion takes for something else. (Passenger room, storage space, weight reduction).

Where exactly are we going to fill up with hydrogen? Well, GM has that covered too. They are working with energy companies such as Shell to get hydrogen stations running in the United States.

How does a fuel cell work? Well, in fuel cell vehicles, there is an on-board compressed hydrogen. That hydrogen produces water and electricity. Water being the by-product. The electricity the cell produces, along with electric traction powers the vehicle.

General Motors is planning to start these vehicles in the next 4-5 years. Then early next decade have then widely available to the public.
 

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I think that's all well and good, but a little slow to market.

I just wish GM would combine powers with Toyota, or lease the technology like Ford has, to start building a hybrid like the upcoming Lexus 400h and Toyota Highlander Hybrid. The "hybrid synergy drive" derived from the Prius added to the standard 230hp V6 gives both vehicles 270hp with an estimated 31mpg highway and 36mpg city. The city cycle being higher due to mostly being in electric only mode. Of course there will be maintenance issues with all of these vehicles. You can't just stop into your local Jiffy Lube and get it worked on. All the techs will need special training. But with the eight year warranty on the hybrid system that Toyota is offering, the tradeoff doesn't seem to be too frightful.

I know there's also been stories of the hybrids not getting the advertised mpg. I think this is mostly due to a different type of driving style that these hybrids demand for the highest mileage figures. Staring at the display, or at least being cognitive of it's functions, on the Prius can equal or beat those estimates. It's a totally different vehicle and demands different drving if you want the most mileage for the money. (speaking of the Prius only here) The new hybrids (Lexus 400h and Highlander) may be different still. I'll wait for the road tests later on this Fall for the final word on these products.

Overall though, GM has the right idea - but not a whole lot to offer for the current fuel crunch in the near term. Yeah, the fullsize hybrid trucks are a good starting point, but offer little in the terms of outstanding mileage equal to....say...a Chevy Malibu at 32mpg highway. Yes they can power tools onsight at the construction job for a couple of hours, sound the horn and shut off before you run out of gas and still leave you about 20 minutes worth of petrol to get to a refueling station - so that's cool, but not really a true hybrid as Toyota has done. We're still waiting on that one.

Cheers
 

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Originally posted by killerrd2@May 30 2004, 01:20 PM
I think that's all well and good, but a little slow to market.

I just wish GM would combine powers with Toyota, or lease the technology like Ford has, to start building a hybrid like the upcoming Lexus 400h and Toyota Highlander Hybrid. The "hybrid synergy drive" derived from the Prius added to the standard 230hp V6 gives both vehicles 270hp with an estimated 31mpg highway and 36mpg city. The city cycle being higher due to mostly being in electric only mode. Of course there will be maintenance issues with all of these vehicles. You can't just stop into your local Jiffy Lube and get it worked on. All the techs will need special training. But with the eight year warranty on the hybrid system that Toyota is offering, the tradeoff doesn't seem to be too frightful.

I know there's also been stories of the hybrids not getting the advertised mpg. I think this is mostly due to a different type of driving style that these hybrids demand for the highest mileage figures. Staring at the display, or at least being cognitive of it's functions, on the Prius can equal or beat those estimates. It's a totally different vehicle and demands different drving if you want the most mileage for the money. (speaking of the Prius only here) The new hybrids (Lexus 400h and Highlander) may be different still. I'll wait for the road tests later on this Fall for the final word on these products.

Overall though, GM has the right idea - but not a whole lot to offer for the current fuel crunch in the near term. Yeah, the fullsize hybrid trucks are a good starting point, but offer little in the terms of outstanding mileage equal to....say...a Chevy Malibu at 32mpg highway. Yes they can power tools onsight at the construction job for a couple of hours, sound the horn and shut off before you run out of gas and still leave you about 20 minutes worth of petrol to get to a refueling station - so that's cool, but not really a true hybrid as Toyota has done. We're still waiting on that one.

Cheers
From what Tim told me, GM believes that unless the whole automotive market is willing to switch to hybrid vehicles, the difference is not worth it.
 

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Ever since its introduction, I have been trying to read as much as I can about the Autonomy. While I'm impressed by Autonomy for its fuel cell powertrain that will be a marvel when it arrives in significant numbers on the market in the 2020 time period (GM is smoking some pretty powerful J if it really believes it will see the light of day by 2010), I'm much more impressed with the Autonomy's basic construction. Quite simply, the idea of a modular, relatively simple to construct architecture with a simple carriage that rests on top is quite impressive. I imagine that when it, too, makes it into debut in the 2020 time frame, it will be an amazing boon for auto manufacturing. Its simple design will mean lighter weight (i.e., decreased material costs), ease of manufacture (i.e., less workers to pay to build them), less componentry (i.e., higher quality - fewer recalls - lower warranty costs - larger profits), commonality of architectures (i.e., less research and development costs - highly flexible manufacturing plants (tailor-made vehicles?!)), and the list goes on and on. It's funny how this has slipped beneath the radar of many people (and that may be a good thing).

The Autonomy represents so much more than hybrid energy. I know that I may be getting a bit carried away, but if executed correctly in conjunction with the best of just-in-time manufacturing theories and the general solid theories of "constant improvement," the development of this car will be far more important than its sheetmetal and hydrogen power powertrain. The potential for GM is absolutely enormous. It's nice to see that GM hasn't forgotten the edge that a powerful, well-executed manufacturing strategy can provide for a company.
 

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You know what? Gasoline was a pretty damn good stuff to put in internal combustion engines, and the good ole Otto 4-cycle was a damn good thing to make cars go.

You think gasoline is expensive? Wait until you'll have to pay for hydrogen, and for a vehicle that takes twice as much of it...

And still, where is this stuff going to come from? There aren't any hydrogen wells in the ground just waiting to be tapped, you either have to break up some type of hydrocarbon (like natural gas, but then why not just run on CNG?) or, as is popularly publicized, water. But the electricity needed to break apart H20 is about 120% of the energy created when you burn the hydrogen - not terribly efficient. Somehow capturing waste methane (ie farms...) could work...



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Originally posted by Smaart Aas Saabr@May 31 2004, 02:53 AM
You know what? Gasoline was a pretty damn good stuff to put in internal combustion engines, and the good ole Otto 4-cycle was a damn good thing to make cars go.

You think gasoline is expensive? Wait until you'll have to pay for hydrogen, and for a vehicle that takes twice as much of it...

And still, where is this stuff going to come from? There aren't any hydrogen wells in the ground just waiting to be tapped, you either have to break up some type of hydrocarbon (like natural gas, but then why not just run on CNG?) or, as is popularly publicized, water. But the electricity needed to break apart H20 is about 120% of the energy created when you burn the hydrogen - not terribly efficient. Somehow capturing waste methane (ie farms...) could work...
your right that hydrogen is not efficiant to gather. its is, like you said, more costly to produce than it gives out as an energy souce.

but.

if we start to make cars that run on it, we will be more inclined to put money towards making it more efficiant to get, bringing prices down and production up.

also ive seen articals on a dam based hydrogen creator. basically it takes the water spins the turbines, creats electricity, then the electrictiy (in another area) the electricity is used to part hydrogen and oxygen from H2O, both are contained and sold separtly.

it may not technically be a "renewable" resorce, but it at least it can be created in a clean, easy, and low labor situation.
 

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The only problem with Hydrogen today is the expense in producing it. However, this is to be expected considering it's a relatively new fuel source and isn't used on a large scale. Once the process is refined and it's being mass produced, then it becomes viable. In the short term, one of the easiest alternatives to gas is alcohol. Most engines today will burn alcohol with only minor changes. Gasoline is still cheaper than alcohol, though some gas stations are cutting alcohol into their gas to make it cleaner and to boost the octane. Methane, as previously mentioned, is another alternative, along the lines of propane. Then there is biodiesel which is actually in production today. Compared to all the alternatives, gasoline could double in price again before alternatives start to become viable.
 

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By the year 2006, GM is going to have high-volume hybrid GM trucks, not just a few like today.
Good stuff, NSAP!

Let's hope this means we'll see a DOD / Hybrid-assist Suburban and HUMMER next year! Such a move would do wonders for GM, even if it doesn't supply 60 miles per gallon performance.
 

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Originally posted by Smilingoat@May 31 2004, 05:43 AM
also ive seen articals on a dam based hydrogen creator. basically it takes the water spins the turbines, creats electricity, then the electrictiy (in another area) the electricity is used to part hydrogen and oxygen from H2O, both are contained and sold separtly.

it may not technically be a "renewable" resorce, but it at least it can be created in a clean, easy, and low labor situation.
The problem with the dam scenario is that all of the electricity from current dams is already spoken for, and we ran out of good dam sites 50 years ago. We're left with sites like Teton, which burst before it was ever full. We don't want any more dams.

I like the idea of a clean energy medium (notice I didn't say energy source) like hydrogen, and I hope GM can make this work because they have invested a lot into it, but I'm still at a loss as to how we are going to get our hands on all this hydrogen without using even more energy in the meantime. Aren't my natural gas prices going up because things are little tight in that area? Electricity grids are being pushed to their limits in summer months now, and most run on fossil fuels anyway. Nuclear power presents it's own problems.

Hyrdrogen vehicles are attractive to automakers because it takes them out of the emission control game. Imagine how much money spent currently on meeting ever increasing emission standards could be saved once all their vehicles put out is water vapor.

Of course, the amount of energy they consume could still be related like CAFE now, but that may be easier to manage than both CAFE and emission standards.
 

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Originally posted by Dodge Drivin' Paul@May 31 2004, 12:27 PM
this is to be expected considering it's a relatively new fuel source and isn't used on a large scale. Once the process is refined and it's being mass produced, then it becomes viable.
The first use of electrosis of water (to produce hydrogen) was in the 17th century, and since then no advances have been made. There aren't really any advances TO make in hydrogen-from-water, since the energy is needed to break apart the molecule. Electrolysis will never be able to break 85% efficiency.



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while there may be other alternatives to hydrogen I do not believe that they are sustainable. The world's oil supplies are in decline now and i doubt that there are other sources of energy that can take oil's place, I do not have any figures to look at but i doubt that there is an energy source that can replace all of the gas for all of the engines world wide. That leaves hydrogen as a remaining source. Hydrogen is not a source of energy it is a storage medium, the source of energy will most likely be nuclear. Sources such as wind and solar will most likely never be able to be used as a main sources of energy since they are not reliable (cloudy day or no wind). Hydrogen however, has the advantage of being a very plentiful resource (70% of the world is water) and "refineries" could be set up all over the US/world. As for power grids being saturated more plants can be built and at night there usually is excess energy being produced so that energy could be turned into hydrogen. Using this information i believe that the general has bet on the right horse with hydrogen. Also, I believe that i heard that in california arnold has passed a law to require hydrogen to be at the pumps by 2007, dont quote me on this i heard it a few months ago in a blurb on the radio.
 

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Hydrogen is the most plentilful substance on the Earth after carbon and it doesn't have any negatives when "burned." So it makes total sense to pursue it as our next source of energy.

To those that say it isn't profitable, let's think about where gasoline comes from. Billion dollar wells must be built all over the world in order to extract it from hundreds of feet below the surface of the land or oceans. Then it has to be pumped into ships (costing millions each) that are specifically designed to carry only crude oil and shipped to a refinery (again costing billions) and, well, refined. Then the gasoline has to be shipped all over the country yet again before it arrives at your local gas station waiting to be pumped into your car. All the while it is an extremely volatile substance so extensive and rigorous safeguards had to be developed and added to all equipment to reduce the possibility of explosions or contamination of the ground and/or oceans.

None of that is cheap and yet they found a way to make it profitable. Very profitable. Don't worry that hydrogen won't make it because it's too expensive. Refinement of the extraction process will undoubtedly take place and the economies of scale will help also. I doubt that when Otto was designing his machine he cared about how much the gasoline cost. He simply chose the best option and the world adapted because it was a good idea.

"Build it and they will come." Or in this case, "Build it and it will get cheaper." Just like DVD players.

GM is on the right track, they just need to honestly stay with the idea and they will be the hydrogen market leader and everyone else will be playing catch up. But if the past is any indicator, they (and Ford too) will spend billions only to drop the project for no apparent reason; and just before it reaches critical mass.
 

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You all must not have heard of Genesis World Energy. The corporation that's suppose to have a product that creates hydrogen gas and electricity from water.
There's the G-cell and the E-cell (gas and electricity) both supposedly becoming available to residential and commercial uses and for the "auto" industry. Check the link out for details....with a lot of skepticism.

http://www.genesisworldenergy.org/genesis_...orld_energy.htm

Sounds too good to be true. I guess we'll all see when/if it comes on line.

Cheers
 

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Originally posted by killerrd2@Jun 3 2004, 03:26 PM
You all must not have heard of Genesis World Energy. The corporation that's suppose to have a product that creates hydrogen gas and electricity from water.
There's the G-cell and the E-cell (gas and electricity) both supposedly becoming available to residential and commercial uses and for the "auto" industry. Check the link out for details....with a lot of skepticism.

http://www.genesisworldenergy.org/genesis_...orld_energy.htm

Sounds too good to be true. I guess we'll all see when/if it comes on line.

Cheers
Ah, aren't their laws being broken here? Like the big one in physics that says you can't get more energy out of a system than you put in? How can hydrogen and oxygen give off energy when they combine, and yet you can coax hydrogen away from oxygen with no external energy source?

Perpetual motion machine fans, we've got your company!
 

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There are generators on the coasts that use the tide to generate electricity, I think this would be ideal because it wouldnt effect the environment as much as an inland hydrogen plant would.

And to address the cost issue mustangpauly, are you trying to say that specialized vehicles arent required to transport hydrogen? because the last time I checked it was one of the least stable substances known to man, as well as the least dense. To be transported profitably in quantity you would need to pressurize it and that requires a very, very specialized vehicle. i'm not sayingt hat your points werent valid, simply that the same points can be used against hydrogen, it would be very easy to use pipelines tot ransport hydrogen, but that would create a very attractive target to terrorist factions hiding in the US of A.
 

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NO NO - We don't have to worry about hydrogen's unstable nature- it can be transported and used in solid form. This would make it completely safe to transport and store, safer for use in our cars as a fuel in case of an accident, and much easier to use. Although I'm not sure how much more expensive it is to form. I saw a very interesting piece about it not too long ago- I wish I taped it. Interesting eh?

-Mark B.
 

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Great Article.. It is very intersting to see the way GM is heading right now!!

If they could mate the Hybrid System with the Fuel Cell and DOD they'll get outstanding gas mileage..

GM should hurry up with their hybrids to steal the market from Toyota..
 

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Bakerna:

Sorry, I didn't mean to say that we didn't need specialized vehicles to transport hydrogen, I agree that they are needed. I only meant that we'll figure out a safe way to transport it when it becomes more necessary. Gasoline was dangerous in its day but we developed specialized vehicles along the way that limited the risk to acceptable levels.

The ideas of using a hydrogen solid or a pipeline are all good ideas that are beginning to address the issue. Eventually, someone will devise the safest method and we'll all start using it.
 

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Originally posted by MBGTP@Jun 6 2004, 11:43 PM
NO NO - We don't have to worry about hydrogen's unstable nature- it can be transported and used in solid form.
That's really cool - wonder what it looks like in that state?
 
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