General Motors Corp. is stepping up its interest in fuel cells and forging an alliance with the producer of a multilayer-plastic storage system for hydrogen fuel as part of its team to establish the new technology.
The Detroit-based automaker announced June 12 it has taken a ``substantial'' minority ownership interest in Quantum Technologies Inc. of Irvine, Calif., which already produces fuel systems for natural gas and hydrogen-powered vehicles.
The companies will work together to find storage solutions to get compressed hydrogen onto vehicles and make a hydrogen-powered fuel cell automobile a mass-production reality.
The next day, GM announced another alliance, taking a 15-16 percent ownership in Vancouver, British Columbia-based General Hydrogen Corp. to create the infrastructure needed to make hydrogen widely available. General Hydrogen's chairman, Geoffrey Ballard, also was a founder of pioneering fuel cell company Ballard Power Systems.
General Hydrogen and Ballard Power do not have any current relationships, Geoffrey Ballard said.
The companies did not disclose details of the alliances.
``We are really committed to moving forward to a vision of the hydrogen economy and making fuel cell vehicles a reality,'' said Larry Burns, GM's vice president for research and development.
Fuel cells for vehicles consist of a series of bipolar plates - now made either of thermoset plastic or metal - that sandwich a polymer membrane. Hydrogen and oxygen flow over the cell, which captures the energy made when the two elements combine to form water.
A fuel cell vehicle can be powered by a variety of fuels, but finding a way to transport and store hydrogen itself is the ultimate goal, Burns said. Hydrogen burns clean, with no harm to the environment, unlike reformulated gasoline or methanol. But the worldwide fuel standard is based on oil-based power sources for vehicles. It will take time and technology to shift that focus.
``The realization is that for hydrogen to become a reality, the infrastructure has got to go into place,'' he said.
Quantum Technologies, a subsidiary of Impco Technologies Inc. of Cerritos, Calif., will work with GM to develop the best ways to store hydrogen on a vehicle. It now makes complete fuel systems for natural gas-powered vehicles sold by GM using its TriShield storage system to hold the compressed gas.
The proprietary program uses a thermoset interior layer to provide a permeation barrier, wrapped with carbon fiber for stability and surrounded by a third polymer the company will only say is similar to Kevlar for impact resistance.
The new deal with GM does not specify if that system, also used in hydrogen development programs, will be the one to eventually go on hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles, said Alan Niedzwiecki, executive director of business development for Quantum.
The hydrogen-based fuel system Burns and GM want to see will not come quickly. The company's alliance with General Hydrogen itself covers 25 years, and Burns does not expect to have any concepts for two to three years on how the infrastructure will come together.
Fuel cells themselves likely will depend on other fuel systems, including reformulated gasoline, in the near future. But the companies are focused on providing a long-term power goal.
GM's participation will provide a lot of influence in fuel cell development, Ballard noted.
``This is the world's largest automaker,'' he said. ``When they choose to endorse this technology, the rest of the world is just going to have to follow.''