Though it has backed away from early plans to put fuel-cell passenger cars on the road, General Motors has big plans for the technology, its Hydrotec division today announcing the launch of a new line-up of hydrogen-powered mobile generators it hopes will show up anywhere from remote concert venues to the military’s front lines.
Using hydrogen, rather than conventional fuels like gasoline or natural gas offers a number of advantages, according to GM. It is cleaner, more energy efficient, quieter and can even produce potable water, something that could have logistical advantages for soldiers in the field.
“Our vision of an all-electric future is broader than just passenger vehicles or even transportation,” said Charlie Freese, GM executive director of GM’s Hydrotec business unit.
An early pioneer looks to the future
GM was an early pioneer in the use of fuel-cell technology and, during the past two decades, has shown off a number of vehicle prototypes. But it has backed away from plans to put a hydrogen-powered passenger vehicle into production. Instead, it has shifted to commercial applications that include fuel-cell semi-trucks and locomotives, as well as the portable generators it announced on Wednesday.
Starting at outputs of 70 kilowatts, three different versions of the generators, dubbed Empower, MPG and Palletized, are being readied. These include a system that could be used to provide charging for battery-electric vehicles on a temporary or long-term basis without an operator having to connect to the grid. Another application would provide mobile EV charging where needed in a hurry.
The palletized charging system could find applications in a variety of different remote situations, including disaster sites, or to help balance energy loads during black or brownouts, said Freeze.
And the hydrogen generators could be used in a variety of temporary field applications, such as concert venues where plenty of power is needed on a short-term basis.
“These systems run extremely quiet,” and develop no odors, unlike the diesel generators often found at concerts and other public events, said Hydrotec business development leader Joe Mercurio.
Fuel-cell systems also are about twice as energy-efficient as conventional generators, Hydrotec officials noted. But they offer several other advantages that have led the U.S. military to begin exploring ways to use the new technology. Not only are the generators quieter, but they are more compact and put off a much lower heat signature than conventional power systems. That could make it much harder for the enemy to spot them when used in the field, said Freese.
And there’s another logistical advantage. Fuel-cell technology operates by flowing hydrogen gas across a permeable membrane coated with a catalyst like platinum. It combines with oxygen from the air to create a flow of current. Water vapor is the only byproduct — and it can readily be made drinkable, addressing one of the big challenges the military faces out on the battlefront.
The chicken and the egg
For now, GM isn’t offering pricing or other financial information on the new Empower technology, but he stressed that the new venture “is a great way to leverage investments we’re already making” in fuel-cell technology, including a plant operated as part of a joint venture with Honda in suburban Detroit. “This gives us an ability to scale more quickly.”
The basic fuel-cell stacks will be produced at the joint venture in Brownstown Twp., Michigan. They will be assembled into the various new generators as part of a new partnership with Renewable Innovations, based in Lindon, Utah.
One of the big challenges to the use of fuel-cell technology is the lack of available fuel. Hydrogen is the most abundant gas in the universe but isn’t freely available. Supplies are expanding, insisted Freese, and by providing more applications for it, that could help address the chicken-and-egg syndrome.
Today, most hydrogen is produced using fossil fuels. But the executive said the goal is a switch to “green” gas produced through the use of solar, geothermal or some other renewable.