GM Plans Fuel-Cell Propulsion Vehicles

A future in which cars operate without using petroleum-based fuels, run hundreds of miles before refueling and emit only water is closer than you might think.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A future in which cars operate without using petroleum-based fuels, run hundreds of miles before refueling and emit only water is closer than you might think.

That was the message presented to about 150 people Tuesday by Larry Burns of General Motors Corp., who spoke at Midwest Research Institute. Burns, GM's vice president of research and development and strategic planning, discussed the automaker's progress toward producing a hydrogen-powered vehicle.

Burns said that GM stands by its previously stated goal of designing and validating a vehicle with a fuel-cell propulsion system that can compete with the traditional internal-combustion engine by 2010.

Fuel-cell vehicles run through power generated by combining hydrogen and oxygen. No exhaust or greenhouse gases would be emitted in its operation. The only byproduct is water.

"A fuel cell is like a battery, except it doesn't store electricity," Burns said. "You can create electricity with a fuel cell as long as you have hydrogen available."

In January, GM showcased a hydrogen-powered concept car, a five-seat sport utility vehicle called the Sequel, at the North American Auto Show in Detroit. Burns described it as the first fuel-cell vehicle whose performance is comparable to that of gasoline-powered cars. Burns said the Sequel can run for 300 miles before refueling, and it can accelerate to 60 mph in less than 10 seconds.

"We really do think we're going to revolutionize how people move around," he told the group at the institute's Arthur Mag Conference Center.

With gasoline prices reaching record levels this year and growing concern about the U.S. dependence on foreign oil, the public interest in alternative technologies for cars has risen. Consumers are showing more interest in hybrid vehicles, which run on a combination of gas and electricity.

Although GM is producing hybrids, Burns said, the long-term solution to the country's dependence on petroleum is making vehicles powered by hydrogen, which can be produced from a variety of sources.

But some analysts think that fuel-cell vehicles becoming a mainstream part of the automotive industry is still a long way down the road.

"It's a technology that all the vehicle manufacturers are pursuing and researching" said Anthony Pratt, senior manager of global powertrain at J.D. Power and Associates. "But we're still a ways away from a commercially viable hydrogen vehicle. With the current technology, the cost right now for a hydrogen vehicle would be so great that it wouldn't make economic sense for the consumer to buy it or the automaker to build it."

But Burns thinks that is rapidly changing. The technology to produce GM's Sequel is two years old, he said, and advances have since been made to produce fuel-cell vehicles more efficiently.

Currently, Burns said, the cost of producing the hydrogen for use in vehicles is 1.3 times the cost of producing gasoline for vehicle use. In addition, producing hydrogen also creates pollution.

"You may just be shifting the consumption of energy from the driver to the producer of hydrogen," Pratt noted.

However, GM thinks entrepreneurs who develop more efficient ways of producing hydrogen could solve that problem as the auto industry continues moving toward fuel-cell vehicles. In addition to hydrogen being produced from fossil fuels, Burns said, hydrogen can also be produced by nuclear, solar and wind power.

Another apparent problem is infrastructure in the distribution of hydrogen, whether in the form of a liquid or gas. Burns thinks liquid is the most practical form. GM has done a study showing that building about 12,000 hydrogen filling stations throughout the country's metropolitan areas would put a station within easy access of every driver of a fuel-cell vehicle. Also, a hydrogen station every 25 miles on the interstate could also be established.

Burns said GM estimated that would cost $12 billion.

"That would be one-half the cost of what it would take to build the Alaskan oil pipeline today," he said. "You don't need hydrogen at every filling station in the country to get started."

Burns also touted the fuel cell vehicle for having far fewer parts than a gasoline-powered vehicle, requiring much less maintenance.

"It's very simple from a mechanical standpoint," he said. "There are one-tenth as many moving parts on a fuel cell as there is on an internal combustion engine," he said.

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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News