Hybrids are getting the automotive headlines, but two carmakers say they remain focused on fuel cells for the long-term driving future.
With its Sequel concept car, which debuted Jan. 9 at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, General Motors Corp. said it has improved its capabilities with hydrogen-powered fuel cells to come up with a five-passenger vehicle that would have a range of 300 miles and hit 60 mph in less than 10 seconds.
Honda Motor Co. Ltd. has pledged to place a fuel-cell vehicle in the hands of individual drivers by the end of this year, improving on developments that have left them under the control of government and research fleets up to now.
``It demonstrates that Honda's fuel-cell technology is ready for real-world use,'' said Takeo Fukui, president and chief executive officer of Tokyo-based Honda.
Honda also announced plans to develop a system to produce hydrogen from natural gas that will allow consumers to fill their cell-powering tanks at home.
The proton-exchange-membrane fuel cells typically used in the auto industry contain a variety of plastics - in the membrane where the reaction between hydrogen and oxygen takes place, creating the electrical power, in the bipolar plates within the fuel-cell stack and in the composite tanks that hold the hydrogen fuel.
Improvements in fuel-cell technology, fuel storage and the interaction between the electric motors on a car and the cell itself all have been key to a 25 percent improvement for GM's research since it introduced its fuel-cell concept car the Autonomy in 2002, said engineer Daniel O'Connell.
``It's all about the care and feeding of the fuel-cell stack,'' he said.
Like the Autonomy and its follow-up, the fuel-cell-powered Hy-Wire, the Sequel consists of a vehicle body that is placed on top of a slender chassis containing the operating elements of the power system. The ``skateboard'' platform holds three cylindrical tanks that hold the hydrogen that powers the cells
GM engineers worked with molder Quantum Technologies Inc. of Irvine, Calif., and material supplier Toray Composites America Inc. of Kirkland, Wash., to create the carbon-fiber composite tanks capable of storing enough fuel for longer trips.
``This is a real car, with real technology,'' said Larry Burns, GM vice president of research and development and planning.
Feedback from an ongoing study with Dow Chemical Co. and GM using a stationary fuel-cell generator at Dow's Freeport, Texas, plant is providing real-world information that can help the firms determine how everything from temperatures to hydrogen quality affects the cells, O'Connell said.
``You're looking at how you can make [the cells] more robust,'' he said.
GM engineers also are watching other fuel-cell developments that point to potential new materials for the membrane and bipolar plates, as well as hydrogen storage, O'Connell said. The automaker hopes that its own high-profile public projects like the Sequel will continue to prod more talk about cells and more studies - which in turn will aid in improvements to manufacturing needed to make the power systems a reality.
``What we really want and need is to have a lot of energy and a lot of talk going about fuel cells that will keep the research going and the lines of communication open,'' he said.