GM Tests Fuel Cell Power Generator
The Associated Press
Aug 7 2001 5:54PM
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) - General Motors Corp. on Tuesday unveiled a stationary power generator that could provide electricity for an average-sized home, part of a bid to expand its use of fuel cell technology.

``It would help the situation in California. It could be used to power the White House,'' Larry Burns, GM vice president, research and development and planning, said at an industry conference here Tuesday.

The fuel cell generator GM is testing extracts hydrogen from either natural gas, methane or gasoline. The hydrogen then is mixed with oxygen from the air and the fuel cell converts it to electricity.

GM staff engineer Daniel O'Connell says the goal is to use primarily natural gas since a vast network of pipelines already exists, making the fuel easily accessible, plus it produces only trace amounts of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons.

The unit GM is testing produces 5.3 kilowatts of power, though a larger 100-kilowatt unit could provide enough power for 10 to 12 houses, O'Connell said.

That same generator also could be used to recharge the batteries of electric vehicles or even outdoor equipment such as lawn mowers or tractors.

Burns said the units could produce and store hydrogen that could be used during peak power periods to generate electricity.

It's an application of the technology GM's counterparts are not pursuing.

``We'd rather use it to develop fuel cell vehicles,'' said Carol Honeycutt, a spokeswoman for the Chrysler Group of DaimlerChrysler AG.

``We're a car company, we're not interested in producing stationary units,'' Ford spokeswoman Robin Schultz said.

But one leading industry analyst believes GM is taking a major step in the advancement and application of fuel cell technology.

``It changes the game,'' said David Cole, director of the Center for Automotive Research. ``It makes sense for the next step in the technology to be power generation.''

He said the key would be to make the units cost-effective. GM said it does not yet have a price or a timetable for making the stationary units available.

Ann Mesnikoff of the Sierra Club said she would reserve judgment until more information becomes available on the emissions created by the fuel cell units.

Burns said the units have been undergoing testing at its Rochester, N.Y., research facility for the past six months.

Cole said if GM is adding power generation to its business portfolio, it's ``the right thing to do,'' with the need for more power so acute.

While GM is just getting into the power-generation field, for the last year Detroit-based DTE Energy has been scrutinizing stationary fuel cell units at a test home in Farmington Hills, Mich.

Spokesman Scott Simon said DTE Energy a few years ago bought a 32 percent interest in Plug Power, a Latham, N.Y. firm which is developing and manufacturing natural gas-powered stationary fuel cell units.

``It's a way to reduce the need to build new power plants,'' Simon said.

GM also announced a major step in the development of fuel cell-powered vehicles with the unveiling of the first gasoline-fed processor for fuel cell propulsion.

The Gen III processor, mounted on a Chevrolet S-10 pickup truck, extracts hydrogen from gasoline, creating electric power much the same as the stationary units, with the added benefit of powering a vehicle.

GM claims the Gen III when combined with the fuel cell stack has the potential to obtain 40 percent overall energy efficiency - about 50 percent more efficient than a conventional internal combustion engine.

The S-10 fuel cell generates 25 kilowatts, which translates roughly into 33 hp, the company said.

Burns said the fuel cell powering the S-10 could achieve 50 percent better gas mileage than an internal combustion engine and reduce greenhouse emissions by half.

The Sierra Club's Mesnikoff says GM's announcement is at odds with its opposition to raising fuel mileage standards.

``A fuel cell S-10 is great, but they've spent so much time telling Congress they can't raise fuel efficiency, and now, today they're saying they can,'' Mesnikoff said.

GM's announcement is considered an incremental step in the technology since gasoline-fed fuel cell vehicles are not pollution-free, as are fuel cell vehicles fed with pure hydrogen.

However, on-board hydrogen tanks are extremely heavy since they must be strong enough to prevent the highly flammable gas from exploding in the event of a crash. The automakers are working with outside companies to help solve that problem.

Other challenges to a quick conversion to hydrogen are cost of the technology and an insufficient network of filling stations.

GM says it will begin driving demonstrations of the gasoline-fed fuel cell powered pickup truck early next year, but they would not be widely available until ``mid-decade.''

Earlier this year Burns said the year 2010 was the earliest hydrogen-fed fuel cell vehicles could be available.

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