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R&D 2002: Electricity-Producing Vehicles

General Motors’ Hydronomy program breaks the mold with research to link fuel cell cars to the electric grid by 2010.
December 1, 2002

When General Motors, the world’s largest automaker, attempts to reinvent the world’s energy infrastructure-even rethinking notions of the car itself-it’s not exactly research as usual. But in recent months, Detroit-based General Motors has integrated and expanded several existing research programs in a concerted effort to provide an alternative to the internal combustion engine. The plan is to use hydrogen to power cars, to tap into the vehicles’ idle time to supply residential energy, and eventually to supply the nation’s electric grid.

General Motors is pinning its ambitions on fuel cells, which generate electricity through a chemical reaction that starts with hydrogen and emits only water and heat. Other automakers and electricity companies are working on similar fuel-cell technology. Indeed, the first generation of fuel-cell-powered cars will hit the market over the next few years. But Larry Burns, the company’s vice president for research, development, and planning, says General Motors is devoting some 600 staffers and “hundreds of millions of dollars” to a far more radical concept for the fuel-cell-powered car in a research program called Hydronomy, shorthand for “hydrogen economy.” Burns says, “We think that if this is successful, it will be a much bigger idea than inventing the automobile. It not only reinvents the automobile but our industry.”

It is radical because instead of integrating fuel cells into today’s car designs, the company plans to manufacture a fuel cell chassis. The skateboard-like platform would be connected electrically to a replaceable body. That way, says Chris Borroni-Bird, director of design and technology fusion, “It could last 20 or 30 years. You could mortgage a chassis like you mortgage your house and just get new bodies instead of new cars.” The approach, he says, could help make fuel cell cars far cheaper over the long term and, therefore, more attractive to consumers.

The fuel cell skateboard is the building block of a larger vision as well. The automaker foresees eventually using the fuel cell car for distributed generation of electricity. After all, 90 percent of the time, today’s cars sit unused in parking lots, driveways, and garages. A parked fuel-cell car could generate cheap electricity and help supply power to a house or even feed the local electric grid.

Although the technology remains a gamble and its first fuel-cell-powered grid-ready car won’t hit the market before 2010, the company has mapped out steps for achieving its goal. In September General Motors snapped a specially designed auto body onto a fuel cell skateboard and unveiled its first drivable prototype. To help accelerate fuel cell development and grid readiness, the auto giant plans to enter the electricity business by 2005 and begin selling stationary fuel cells to supply power to buildings.

To make all this happen, General Motors has corralled research groups in Germany, New York, Michigan, and California into the Hydronomy effort; the project’s 600 workers include 100 added in 2002. In one area of emphasis, researchers are developing the electronics for connecting a car to a house or grid. To achieve that objective, in 2002 General Motors added a research group at the company’s Advanced Technology Center in Torrance, CA. The electronics are already available for large stationary fuel cells, but the challenge for the Torrance group is to make inexpensive versions small enough for cars. Meanwhile, in Honeoye Falls, NY, company researchers are trying to improve fuel cell efficiency, and they are also working on an affordable and rugged reformer, a device that makes hydrogen from such fuels as natural gas and gasoline.

Such large efforts by major companies might just change the way we get from here to there, as well as how we power our houses. “[This technology] begins to obliterate the distinctions between stationary and mobile applications,” says John Turner, a principal scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, CO.

Like many other disruptive technologies, this one starts with a simple vision: in this case, a fuel cell skateboard in every driveway.

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