Big Three Sign With DOE

April 18, 2005
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WASHINGTON, D.C. — The highways will still be made of concrete and asphalt. But in the future, hydrogen is surely what the Big Three will drive on.

General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrysler have all signed on with the Department of Energy to build a fleet of hydrogen-powered vehicles over the next five years, testing various fuel cells in different climates with a trio of energy companies through 2009.

The automakers and the energy agency are splitting the $380 million tab to develop the concept vehicles with the hope that these autos can be market ready in 2015.

“They will develop two generations of vehicles. One set will be testing early on, and then there will be another generation around 2007 that will be tested during the latter three years of the program. There will be 40 vehicles in the two generations of vehicles,” said Sig Gronich, DOE technology validation manager, of the GM tests.

Ford and DaimlerChrysler are doing similar testing, and Gronich said all three are trying to hit the same voluntary goals for their respective programs.

“Those targets were 2,000 hours of durability on the fuel cell, a 250-mile range, and, with the energy partner that they have, they show that in mass production they can produce the hydrogen for a $3 gasoline equivalent,” said Gronich.

The DOE and the automakers feel those are reasonable targets for the first generation of hydrogen vehicles. But the goals rise when the concept cars get closer to the commercial stage. At that point, the targets are for the cells to have a life of 5,000 hours, a range of 300 miles and a cost of $1.50 gasoline equivalent.

“What we are doing is testing technology on both the vehicle side and the infrastructure side. It’s in the laboratory now being developed, and that will be tested in this five-year demonstration,” said Steve Chalk, director of the DOE hydrogen program.

“Even if we’re successful in meeting the goals, we still do not meet the requirements for commercialization, the actual consumer requirements. That is going to take another five-year period, to 2015, if the research is successful,” he added.

Chalk said the key for the program early on is to make progress in the development of the promising fuel cell and then to fully understand what has been learned. That latter point has the automakers working with energy companies in an effort to cover all the angles, including an infrastructure that will store and distribute hydrogen.

To that end, GM has partnered with Shell, while DaimlerChrysler and Ford are working with BP, formerly British Petroleum. United Technologies Corp., Ballard Power Systems and GM are producing the fuel cells that will be tested in the differing climates of California, Florida, Washington, D.C., and Detroit.

Shell Hydrogen will evaluate various distribution systems. Hyundai Motor Co., the Korean automaker, will also conduct vehicle testing with Chevron Texaco. Much of the technology that will be tested has emerged from the DOE’s national laboratories, industry suppliers and the nation’s universities.

“Throughout the course of their research, they will employ 134 fuel-cell vehicles and up to 28 hydrogen refueling stations, such as the one recently opened by Chevron Texaco and BP in Southern California. They will collect data both on the open road and in controlled testing environments,” said Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman at last month’s National Hydrogen Association annual conference.

A fuel cell runs from energy that is produced by mixing hydrogen and oxygen, leaving water as its only byproduct. The program’s hydrogen will come from a variety of sources. But natural gas and the electrolyzing of water will be primary. Others include ethanol, solar, wind, biomass, coal and nuclear.

“The overall plan is to have hydrogen made from diverse domestic resources to get off foreign oil, and also to have a fuel for transportation that can be made from various resources. Right now, we’re only getting gasoline from oil,” said Chalk.

“Another concept they may look at is what is called an energy station. Not only will they produce hydrogen for the vehicles, but they will actually produce hydrogen for a stationary fuel cell that will then make electricity,” said Gronich.

Chalk felt that the potential of the fuel cell can provide benefits for both the domestic energy and automotive industries, meaning more jobs and more work for auto suppliers.

Gronich said GM has told DOE that the firm believes hydrogen will put more vehicles on the road in the future, and that using the element is the only probable way the domestic industry can change from its current state to one of growth down the road.

“It will be difficult to get to that number of vehicles that they foresee on an oil economy because of the restraint on the finite resources. It’s being taxed pretty well now,” he said of the oil supply.

“GM has put forth the position that in order for them to become more of a growth industry, they need to transfer from the existing fueling infrastructure to be able to do that.”    

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