The buzz on fuel cells is getting louder, with General Motors Corp. opening a new technology center for the systems; Honda Motor Co. Ltd. leasing fuel-cell vehicles by the end of this year; and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. pushing up its production plans by two years.
While mainstream manufacturing of the cells and full-scale marketing of everything from cell phones to cars powered by them still are years away, a cross section of interested industries is working in concert to bring them into reality.
``You've got all of these issues - materials, processes, infrastructure, storage - working in parallel now, so everything can move faster,'' said Matt Fronk, chief engineer, fuel-cell systems, for Detroit-based GM. ``What you'll begin to see is that while it won't seem like much is happening on the surface, there will be some breakthroughs that will push everyone forward.''
Fuel cells, which use hydrogen and oxygen to create energy, widely are seen as the next evolutionary step in technology for the auto industry, home generators and hand-held electronic units.
GM unveiled its $15 million fuel-cell development center July 29 in Honeoye Falls, N.Y. The center will bring concepts to commercialization. The 64,000-square-foot complex will be adjacent to GM's existing fuel-cell research center, Fronk said.
Material choice and development will be an important part of the engineering work, he said. Research must find a way to mass-produce cells and the parts that go into them, focusing on proton-exchange-membrane systems. The PEM cells already rely on plastics, with the hydrogen interaction taking place on a special thermoplastic membrane.
Thermoset and thermoplastic suppliers also are seeking other opportunities for their materials: in the bipolar plates on either side of the membrane, in fuel-cell stacks and packaging. The industry as a whole must make a breakthrough in manufacturing, Fronk said. Currently, each plate is made of either graphite or metal and precisely machined or stamped with an indented pattern that allows the hydrogen and oxygen to flow properly.
An injection molded plate, with the pattern produced in the mold, would be a significant improvement.
``Let's say that at some point we're making 1 million fuel-cell cars per year, each one with 240 plates, and we're working 240 days out of the year,'' he said. ``Every day, we would need to make 1 million bipolar plates. That gives you a real perspective to what we're facing.''
A few fuel-cell-powered vehicles will hit the road soon. Honda has won government approval for its hydrogen-powered FCX, and plans to launch a lease program for a limited number of the cars by the end of this year in California and Tokyo.
GM has pledged to have an operating version of its Autonomy fuel-cell concept car up and running by the end of 2002.
Nissan President Carlos Ghosn announced July 30 that the company would speed up its plans to introduce a fuel-cell-powered vehicle to 2003, from 2005.
But the process will not be easy. Although GM is focusing on cars, researchers expect the first commercial sales to be for stationary systems such as electric generators, like the one it already has put in use at its New York research complex.
Ballard Power Systems Inc., the Vancouver company producing fuel-cell stacks for research and development, said the Coleman Powermate generator it had hoped would hit the market in 2001 still is not ready for sale because of problems with an unspecified parts supplier.
``This is really going to have to be a team effort between a lot of different industries,'' Fronk said.