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Fuel-cell Vehicles to Hit the Roads this Summer

By Chris Vander Doelen
Windsor Star
February 4, 2008

By this summer General Motors and Honda will each have more than 100 fuel-cell vehicles on U.S. roads in the first major consumer experiment in hydrogen technology.

The field tests of the hydrogen-electric Honda FCX Clarity and Chevrolet Equinox will take place only in the rare cities which have a hydrogen filling station. So all of the Hondas will be sent to California, while GM’s “Project Driveway” will see the Chevys delivered to New York, Washington and Los Angeles.

The fuel cell prototypes are being loaned or leased to carefully selected households and individuals. And both companies expect a steep learning curve when they start monitoring the feedback they get from their first hydrogen-powered customers.

Which has Larry Burns, the top scientist at General Motors, already looking past the upcoming test to what he envisages as Phase Two of the auto industry’s ambitious scheme to find a new, non-petroleum power source for the world.

At this point of the development arc for hydrogen-powered vehicles, Burns says, what the world really needs is a major city willing to offer itself up as a guinea pig in a massive experiment in fuel-cell transportation.

“I think about this stuff quite a bit,” says Burns, a PhD civil engineer who is vice-president of research and development for GM, as well as head of strategic planning for the company (read: escaping from the grip of oil).

The way Burns imagines his grand experiment, the city – it would have to be a huge commuting metropolis like New York, Detroit or Los Angeles – would agree to have dozens of hydrogen fuel filling stations built throughout its region. The upcoming experiments with small groups of customers clustered around single fuelling stations isn’t sufficiently “real world,” he says.

“What we need to have happen is for some city or metropolitan area to step up and say we’ll put 50 to 80 stations in place. We’ll locate them intelligently so our citizens are no farther than a couple of miles away from these places. Once we have a commitment like that I think the auto industry would be capable of targeting its first real, true first-generation vehicles.”

The Equinox test program, he says, is not a real commercial test. “It’s been engineered to commercial specifications but we’re only doing 100” hand-built units. “The next step is to do 1,000 of something.”

The Catch-22 is, “why build the cars if there are no stations, and why build the stations if there are no cars?” With the stations in place, “we can really do a commercial test” of hydrogen-powered commuting.

“The infrastructure isn’t that costly,” Burns told a small group of journalists at the Detroit auto show. “It doesn’t even have to be in the United States – it could be Shanghai or Brazil.”

But developing a hydrogen economy and fuel-cell technology won’t work until consumers have an opportunity to live as normally as possible during the test – which means not just commuting to work, but driving for leisure and going on vacation.

The actual cost of building a hydrogen fuel stations is about $1 million each. But for argument’s sake, says Burns, count on the experiment costing $250 million to acquire expensive downtown locations, meet deadlines and overcome other contingencies.

The result would be a giant urban laboratory into which GM and its competitors – Honda, BMW, Mercedes and Chrysler to start – could send 1,000 units of their hydrogen-powered vehicles for a real-world experiment.

Each of those major automakers has its own hydrogen engine technology in various stages of readiness for the market. Each of them, Burns says, could easily find 1,000 customers willing to lease or buy an experimental vehicle that could change the world.

It’s a blue-sky idea Burns hopes somebody will run with – an oil company, perhaps – and create a new business model for themselves in the bargain.

But so far, even the most ardent proponents of an oil-free world seem willing to let the struggling and mostly profit-free automotive industry save the world’s transportation bacon.

According to Burns, there are no serious hurdles left to overcome in fuel-cell technology other than mass production at low cost to extremely high tolerances.

But the industry is used to that – building a million units per year. The engineers of the supplier base probably only need a couple of years to perfect the processes – “that comes with experience,” Burns says.

Frank Klegon is Burns’ counterpart at Chrysler LLC, where he is executive vice president of development. He hadn’t heard of GM’s idea for an experimental hydrogen city when asked about it, but calls it “an interesting thought. You have to start some place.”

Chrysler continues to work with former partner Daimler on fuel-cell technology, Klegon says, but remains more concerned about the batteries needed than GM seems to be. “It’s all to the battery. Everybody’s working on that.”

Peter Frise, the automotive engineer who is head of Auto21, Canadian university auto research network, calls GM’s request for a massive city experiment “a great idea. You’d have geographic concentration so you could offer (technical) support for the vehicles.”

Frise says Burns idea “would require a lot of co-operation between industry and government,” from agreeing to a standard filling system to who will pay for the infrastructure.

In April, Burns will be presenting a research paper co-authored by General Motors and Shell to the National Hydrogen Association arguing that the construction of hydrogen fueling infrastructure is “viable and affordable.”

“I think the (hydrogen) car is real,” Burns concludes. “What we have to have next is infrastructure.”

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