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GM is commercializing its fuel cell business. Here's a look behind the scenes

Kalea Hall, The Detroit News on

Published in Automotive News

Last year, Hydrotec said its fuel cells would be used on a fleet of Navistar Inc. manufactured trucks that will be piloted this year by J.B. Hunt Transport Inc. Wabtec Corp. then announced it would use fuel cell systems in its locomotives and Hydrotec signed a joint development agreement with Liebherr-Aerospace to work on a hydrogen fuel cell-based electrical power generation system for aircraft.

GM already has shown in its demos that a fuel cell system can power a normal consumer vehicle, but the automaker recognizes fuel cells are better suited for larger applications.

"When you start trying to put heavy things ... liquids, steel, gravel on the big heavy haulers, that's where you're going to find that there's a big challenge to try to go to electric if you don't also have hydrogen in the technology portfolio," said Charlie Freese, executive director of GM's global Hydrotec business. "And so that's why we continued to put heavy investment into this all along because we saw that it was needed to really build out this overall portfolio."

Freese, GM's former executive director of diesel engineering, took over the program in 2008. His predecessor, Byron McCormick, had led the program since 1997 and advised executives about the capabilities hydrogen fuel cells could provide.

"I thought it was very important technology for GM to have," McCormick said. "It is complementary to batteries, it is not competitive with."

Under McCormick, the team developed a "strong" fuel cell technology and put it into Chevrolet Equinoxes for a demonstration called Project Driveway. When McCormick retired, the technology was ready to be commercialized, he said, but the lack of hydrogen fueling infrastructure held it back.

 

While that infrastructure is still not prevalent, GM is focused on providing fuel cell technology to applications with fixed routes. Meanwhile, its new Ultium battery technology can be used across a variety of consumer vehicles.

"General Motors is in a beautiful spot because by doing both of these things, they've got a portfolio of options they can balance ... General Motors is not a one-trick pony," McCormick said. "It can play the game, all the way across the board."

Inside the lab

Hydrotec's projects are moving forward with the fuel cell lab at the center of making that happen.

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