GM's Very Small Fuel Cells Pack a Punch

General Motors fuel-cell cars are old technology already. (Photo: Siemens PLM Software [CC BY-ND 2.0]/Flickr)

General Motors has just shown dramatically shrunken fifth-generation fuel-cell technology with the same 93-kilowatt output as the previous generation now on the road in fleets of hydrogen-powered Chevrolet Equinoxes. The new stack is about the size of the company's pretty small EcoTec four-cylinder engine.

The 116 Equinoxes being tested as part of Project Driveway on the East and West coasts have accumulated more than a million miles, but their stacks are relative dinosaurs, several year-old technology.

Byron McCormick, GM’s now-retired fuel-cell chief, describes the new stacks as a huge step forward. “I can’t speak for GM,” he said, but it’s pretty clear the company is well-positioned technically for the anticipated 2015 market introductions by Toyota, Honda, Daimler and possibly others.”

Fuel-cell durability has also been a big issue and, according to Fuel Cell Insider, the new stack can last 120,000 miles — about the same lifetime as some internal-combustion engines before they need rebuilds.

The latest breakthrough comes as doubts have been raised about GM’s future commitment to hydrogen fuel cells, given the company’s financial problems, the departure of its longtime fuel-cell champion -- R&D; Vice President Larry Burns -- and a threatened de-funding of fuel-cell research by the Department of Energy.

Burns told me before he left that GM has poured $1.5 billion into fuel cells and needs federal help for the push to market. “We’ve borrowed more than $50 billion,” he said. “We are on track with system engineering, but the vehicle we could produce now would likely be more than the customer wants to pay.”

Since then, both houses of Congress have approved reinstating the hydrogen research funding, so things are looking up. GM seems bullish. In response to a pessimistic USA Today story, it issued a statement saying that $50 to $70 million federal assistance annually is needed to keep the U.S. competitive with European and Asian efforts:

"As the race toward fuel-cell commercialization nears the finish line, the question is whether the U.S. will import those fuel-cell vehicles from overseas or make them domestically," the company said. "GM believes fuel-cell vehicles will be a part of the country’s future vehicle portfolio and [t]hat is why we have kept the fuel-cell development program in place throughout our recent financial crisis — including through bankruptcy.”