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Planes, trains, but not automobiles—why GM is developing fuel cells

Using hydrogen in some of these applications probably makes more sense than building out a network of hydrogen filling stations for passenger cars.
Enlarge / Using hydrogen in some of these applications probably makes more sense than building out a network of hydrogen filling stations for passenger cars.

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In just the 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, that might seem a little surprising, since last week we also saw Honda discontinue its hydrogen fuel cell-powered version of the Clarity. That move was just the latest bit of support for the hypothesis that hydrogen power might join Betamax and the Zune in the history books.

In fact, the history books are where you’ll find GM’s first hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle, the 1966 Electrovan. And in recent years we’ve seen some fuel cell EVs developed by GM for military applications. But neither of these new deals involves making a hydrogen-powered car.

Instead, last Tuesday the automaker announced it would work with Wabtec—which has already developed a battery-electric locomotive—to engineer 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 the man in charge of GM’s fuel cell program. Why does the company still think the lightest gas only has room to expand?

Why is GM developing fuel cells? Why not?

GM has invested plenty of time and billions of dollars in a new platform of lithium-ion batteries, so I first asked Freese why the company should bother with fuel cells, too?

“Having that ability to provide both technologies lets you see where the technology fits best, and not have to try to force a square peg into a round hole,” Freese told Ars. “A strong fuel cell makes a battery look even better because you can operate into that state of charge window and you can do a lot of things to operate more efficiently. Batteries are great for a lot of power, and the hydrogen fuel cell is great for a lot of energy on board, and the two are great complements.”

The case against hydrogen passenger cars

If I was expecting any defense of hydrogen-powered passenger cars, Freese wasn’t ready to deliver one. “The argument against hydrogen is you don’t have hydrogen everywhere,” he said. “I can’t go buy hydrogen necessarily at the street corner. And that’s true today—except for some of the places that have invested in retail outlets like in California—but the challenge is, they’re doing it for retail customers which have a very different set of needs than commercial customers in the aerospace business or in the trucking business or the rail business.”

Trying to build out a network of hydrogen filling stations with similar coverage to existing gasoline stations would be an enormous effort for very little return, given how few passenger cars each station might see on an average 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 range anxiety of trying to hunt for hydrogen,” Freese said. “That’s not a great way to drive down your hydrogen cost and get the maximum use out of your investment.”

The case for hydrogen in planes and trains and heavy trucks

“Let’s not try to force this technology into the most difficult things first,” Freese continued. “Let’s find these applications where we already solve a customer problem, and that led us to trucking.” Factories and warehouses are already operating fuel cell-powered forklifts today, and Freese says that freight trucks could use the same refueling points.

Add in hydrogen refueling at airports and rail yards thanks to those fuel cell powered planes and trains—common destinations for freight leaving factories and warehouses—and you have yourself a whole ecosystem in GM’s eyes. “I’m helping one mode of transportation, and that’s helping the other mode, my scale economies go up, my costs come down, the whole thing from a total cost of ownership starts to make so much more sense,” Freese said.

Predictable routes where there’s a lot of regular refueling—like train yards and airports—might make it worth installing liquid hydrogen storage, particularly if their forklifts and ground support vehicles are also powered by fuel cells. “Now my storage density improves from both a gravimetric and a volumetric standpoint, my cost gets better, and my efficiency gets better,” Freese said. “So it’s just all around a better way to do things.”

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