TRAVERSE CITY, MICH. - General Motors Corp. is continuing its push toward a fuel cell future, one that it expects will use plastics as a core material in the new power system.
The automaker rolled out its two newest products using fuel cells Aug. 7 at the auto industry's Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City: A stationary power system for a home that could hit the market by mid-decade, as well as a pickup truck that can draw hydrogen from gasoline to power its cells.
Both systems represent an improved proton-exchange membrane fuel cell stack that is both smaller and lighter than previous systems, which allows the company to tap into improved energy efficiency, said Larry Burns, GM vice president for research, development and planning.
While the automaker would not specify what type of material it is using in the current fuel cell prototype, it is looking at all the potential players to make up the bulk of the stack itself. That includes the ongoing research and planning for composites and thermoplastics.
``They're all candidates,'' said Byron McCormick, co-executive director of GM's global alternative propulsion center in Rochester, N.Y. ``If you look at the fuel cell, you'll see a lot of metal there now, and it's pretty clear that there are a lot of opportunities for plastics to come in.''
Detroit-based GM has been moving steadily to upgrade its involvement in cells, which draw energy from the reaction as hydrogen and oxygen form to create water. During the past few months, it has created joint ventures with the producer of a composite fuel tank used to store hydrogen and with a developer of a hydrogen fuel delivery system.
Last year, it joined forces with ExxonMobil Corp. to develop an on-board system to draw hydrogen from gasoline. The S-10 pickup, which premiered in Traverse City, is the first vehicle to use that system.
The automaker must be certain it teams up with suppliers in the early stages and keeps them updated as to its moves, Burns said, so they can travel the same technology road as GM.
``It is key to have the supplier relationship early on,'' Burns said.
Without their support, GM will not have the backing it needs when it is ready to go to market, McCormick said.
``It's the people making the polymers, making the catalysts that have got to be prepared,'' he said. ``We've got to take this forward in a way that they can benefit as well.''
It will take time to bring a vehicle into the market, but the business is taking steps to make it a reality, he said. That includes production of the prototype stationary power system.
An energy provider that can power a single house, subdivision or manufacturing plant likely will hit the consumer market sooner, just because there are fewer problems involved with finding a fuel source. Unlike the reformulated gasoline power for cars, which bring a whole new series of technological hurdles, a stationary power system can run on natural gas or other fuel systems already available. GM has used its prototype in Rochester for the past six months.
By the time a home-based system hits the market, it likely will be about the same size as the central air-conditioning unit already at homes throughout the United States. Those fuel cells, meanwhile, also will help build up the potential for a fuel cell-powered car, since they will drive interest by consumers and test their use.
``We have to get to the point that we're producing stacks in quantities,'' Burns said. ``We want to get the customers ready for the technology.''