GM Readies Fuel Cells for Commercial Deployment

Batteries aren’t the only electrification answer – GM Hydrotec boss said hydrogen fuel cells now are a market-ready choice for work trucks and other transportation modes.

Operating a coating machine in the fuel-cell laboratory at the GM Global Propulsion Systems Pontiac Engineering Center in Pontiac, MI. (Image: Steve Fecht for General Motors)

Call it a “technology-meets-the-moment” place in the transportation sector’s innovation timeline. After decades of concentrated development work, GM’s fuel-cell R&D unit Hydrotec is poised to deploy “the first applications that will be going commercial” of its hydrogen fuel-cell technology, said Charlie Freese, Executive Director of GM Hydrotec and GM Defense in a recent meeting with a group of automotive journalists and analysts.

“Large vehicles and heavy payloads – that’s where replacing petroleum-fueled vehicles with hydrogen fuel cells works very well,” Freese asserted. “That’s where we plan to go moving forward.”

He pointed to Hydrotec’s Power Cube, a modular, “common fuel-cell system” suitable for vehicles or for stationary-power applications. The Power Cube is comprised of 300-plus versions of its current second-generation fuel cells in a compact and easily packaged footprint that also incorporates power- and thermal-management systems.

GM Fuel Cell Controls and Process Engineer Joe Truchan builds a fuel cell stack at the GM Global Propulsion Systems Pontiac Engineering Center in Pontiac, MI. (Image: Steve Fecht for General Motors)

Freese said the second-generation fuel cell design has markedly reduced loadings of precious metals required for the system’s catalyst; the Gen 0 design used about 80 grams of platinum, Gen 1 reduced the amount to around 30 grams – and the Gen 2 technology has cut the amount to the 20-gram level.

“Our process has been to optimize the way fuel cells operate,” Freese explained. He said dimensions have been significantly reduced and the current generation is a “much more manufacturable design,” he added, including the “soft goods” such as the membrane and gas-differentiation media.

Third-Party Partners

Freese mentioned several previously announced projects with non-automotive companies to employ GM fuel-cell technology, although he did not detail which, if any, may be close to requiring commercial volumes. These include:

  • In January 2021, GM confirmed it would supply Hydrotec Power Cubes to Navistar to in its production hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicle (FCEV) International RHTM regional-haul Class 8 tractor-trailers. Two Hydrotec Power Cubes generate electricity for the truck with zero gaseous emissions.

  • In mid-2021, GM announced it, and Liebherr-Aerospace would collaborate to develop a fuel cell power-generation demonstrator system - along with GM’s controls and software models - for aircraft. Freese said the application is meant to replace the conventional fossil-fueled auxiliary power unit (APU) of Liebherr’s heavy commercial aircraft, explaining the APU application offers “incredible opportunities” because of the fuel cell’s complete lack of noise and emissions. The fuel cells also will generate onboard water that can be used to humidify the cabin air and provide water for toilets.

  • Also in mid-2021, GM said it was joining hands with global railroad equipment maker Wabtec to adapt Power Cubes for railroad locomotives. Wabtec developed a battery-electric locomotive that it projected could cut carbon emissions by up to 30 percent. Rafael Santana, Wabtec CEO and President, said in a release, “By working with GM on Ultium battery and Hydrotec hydrogen fuel-cell technologies, we can accelerate the rail industry’s path to decarbonization and pathway to zero-emission locomotives by leveraging these two important propulsion technologies.”

“You kind of notice a theme,” Freese said. “[These partner companies] all have the need for a lot of energy - and have somewhat predictable usage patterns.” He said those operational patterns make it easier to understand critical aspects such as how much onboard fuel storage is required for a set distance or workload and that it is easier to plan refueling for transportation modes such as planes and trains and trucks that operate on predetermined routes.

GM Hydrotec’s modular fuel-cell ‘Power Cubes’ contain more than 300 fuel cells, as well as thermal- and power-management systems. (Image: Steve Fecht for General Motors)

Pedal to Metal on H2 cost, Infrastructure

Freese also stressed that GM and Hydrotec remain focused on the fuel portion of the fuel-cell equation. The company has ongoing initiatives to reduce the cost of a kilogram of hydrogen to roughly the cost of a gallon of diesel fuel.

Charlie Freese, Executive Director of GM Hydrotec and GM Defense, discusses GM’s first-generation fuel-cell prototype in 2016. (Image: SAE/Bill Visnic)

The company is working to reduce the cost and improve the efficiency of electrolyzers that use electricity to derive hydrogen from water molecules. The company announced in a release in late 2022 that it engaged in a joint-development agreement with Nel Hydrogen U.S., a subsidiary of Norway’s Nel ASA, “to help accelerate the industrialization of Nel’s proton-exchange membrane (PEM) electrolyzer platform” with the goal of developing hydrogen more cost-competitively.

GM said that Nel was the first company in the world with a fully automated alkaline electrolyzer production line and that the two companies hope to industrialize the production of Nel’s PEM electrolyzer equipment to enable technology advancement. “An automated production concept is key when scaling up and driving down cost on electrolyzer technology,” said Nel CEO Hakon Volldal. “By utilizing the combined expertise of both companies, it will help to more quickly develop a green hydrogen technology that is competitive with fossil fuels,” he added.

Freese said that less expensive, more efficient electrolyzers can reduce the cost of shipping hydrogen as a liquid or a gas by truck to its required dispensing location. “If we use [local] electrolyzers, we can cut that piece out,” as well as begin to leverage other common infrastructure investments to reduce pressurization, transportation, and storage costs. He likened the effort to making diesel fuel widely available to retail customers. At first, he said consumers had difficulty relying on diesel availability - “Now, I have no problem finding diesel” for his own pickup truck, he said.

Pickup-Market Target

Pickup trucks, particularly large, work-oriented models, generate massive profit for the Detroit Three automakers and Dan Nicholson, GM’s Vice President of global electrification, controls, software, and electronics, revealed in April at SAE International’s WCX 2023 conference that GM is bullish on fuel cells to generate electricity for large, over-8,500-lb. EVs such as medium-duty pickup trucks that today typically are powered by diesel engines. “We believe the fuel cell is going to win out in the end,” he said, because a fuel cell means electric versions of those vehicles will not require enormously heavy battery packs to answer the demands of their rugged duty cycles.

Freese said GM Hydrotec is conducting a pilot program of medium-duty pickups with the U.S. Dept. of Energy, but a spokesperson said the company was not yet ready with details of the collaboration.

This article was written by Bill Visnic, Editorial Director, SAE International. For more information, visit here .