DETROIT - A new federal and auto industry initiative to finance fuel-cell research could be good news for plastics processors. Not only will the project provide money to investigate plastics' potential within the cell stacks, it also will continue work on lightweight materials used throughout vehicles.
The Freedom Cooperative Automotive Research program, announced Jan. 9 by Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham in Detroit, replaces the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, which focused on bringing an 80-mile-per-gallon ``supercar'' to the market.
But while the major focus of FreedomCAR is on developing a hydrogen-based fuel-cell vehicle, it will take a serious cue from the PNGV by forcing automakers to look harder at thermoplastics, composites and other alternative materials.
``There's still a need for lightweight, aerodynamic body systems,'' said Thomas S. Moore, vice president of DaimlerChrysler AG's Liberty group, the research and development arm that has pushed the concept of injection molded body panels.
``Even with fuel cells, you've still got to keep the weight down for fuel efficiency, to get a longer driving range. It all has to be synergistically collaborative.''
Fuel cells are a hot technology in Detroit, with DaimlerChrysler, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. all rolling out versions of vehicles produced with cells replacing the traditional internal combustion engine.
Fuel cells draw electricity from the chemical reaction of hydrogen and oxygen. The preferred cell system for vehicles, the proton exchange membrane, already relies on plastics with the reaction taking place on a thin polymer film. In addition, thermoset and thermoplastic suppliers both have invested millions of dollars to create an injection moldable grade of plastic that could make up other parts of the fuel-cell stacks.
``This offers opportunities for a new supply base as well as the existing supply base,'' said Frank L. Colvin, vice president for GM's fuel-cell activities.
The Detroit automaker has stressed the potential of fuel cells throughout the past eight months, investing in joint ventures for a multilayer hydrogen storage tank - produced with thermosets, carbon fiber and other high-strength polymers - and to create a hydrogen supply infrastructure.
On Jan. 7, GM used its biggest media platform - the North American International Auto Show - to debut its fuel-cell concept vehicle, the Autonomy.
``This is the most significant car GM has had at this show or any other,'' President and Chief Executive Officer Rick Wagoner said.
Designers tossed the old rules on car design to create a fuel-cell concept from the wheels up. The base of the Autonomy is a 6-inch-thick platform with a cell stack in the center and electric engines at each wheel. It also uses an electronic operating system for braking, steering and throttle control.
The new ``skateboard'' chassis can support a range of vehicle bodies placed on the top and connected to the systems through a program similar to a computer laptop docking station. The concept would allow consumers to change body styles as needed.
``The Autonomy is the kind of vehicle that goes right to the heart of what is possible with fuel cells,'' said Larry Burns, GM vice president for research, development and planning. ``We're very serious about this type of technology.''
The automaker promised to have a drivable version of the concept available by the end of 2003.
Fuel-cell-powered vehicles could make a real commercial presence in the United States by the end of the decade, Wagoner said, but it will require the work of more than one company to create the entire infrastructure needed to service a hydrogen-based fleet.
FreedomCAR will focus on the development of hydrogen to reduce the U.S. economy's reliance on foreign oil sources, Abraham said. Transportation consumes 67 percent of all the petroleum used in the country.
``We [can] use the technological genius found in private industry and at our national laboratories to invent our way to energy independence,'' he said. ``We can look beyond current technology and current fuels to a truly new generation of vehicles.''
While GM led the fuel-cell discussion at the Detroit auto show, other automakers are rolling out their own concepts. Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford has a version of its Focus compact car that runs on a hydrogen fuel-cell program. DaimlerChrysler, the German-American automaker with offices in Stuttgart, Germany, and Auburn Hills, Mich., has fuel-cell vehicles that run on four different fuels, including a minivan that burns sodium borohydride, a chemical compound similar to borax, the natural substance used in laundry soap.
``We've got a lot of new stuff in front of us,'' GM's Colvin said.
Now is a time similar to the early days of the space program, when the U.S. barely had managed to put a man in orbit, then faced a presidential dare to put a man on the moon, added Ken Cameron, program executive with GM's research and development and planning department.
``You have to look that far ahead and to say that we have a challenge and we're going to do it,'' he said. ``This is an exciting time and we're going to play a major role.''