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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

Here, everything from the research and development on all the components of the cells up to pre-production, including validation and durability testing builds, is done for different applications.

"The lab itself is covering the full-value stream of development and engineering," said Betty-Ann Young, manager of fuel cell test and lab systems on a recent tour.

There's a section for single-cell testing and testing fuel cell stacks. The stack test area is where the electrode and a bipolar plate come together for the first time, connecting the cells in the stack to create power.

"It is the heart of the fuel cell. It is where we are looking to improve performance and durability," Young said. "As we successfully get through those tests, then we can scale it up and move through the lab."

A group of employees from across the fuel cells team gather every day to see what's happening across the operation. Folks running the lab, technicians, test engineers, product engineering teams and others work as an integrated team.

And what's developed and tested in this lab will go directly into what's built at the manufacturing joint venture operation, Fuel Cell System Manufacturing LLC, GM operates with Honda in Brownstown Township.

"It’s what we call a learning loop here. We test the product, we productionize it and we learn lessons, we send product back to Betty-Ann, she does the testing and all the diagnostic work," said Suheb Haq, president of Fuel Cells System Manufacturing, during the tour.

 

Collaboration continues in the ink and coating room, where the fuel cell electrode parts and manufacturing are developed. Those specialized on the process work with teams from R&D, manufacturing and engineering, design and product development for the electrodes.

The electrodes, fuel cell systems and Hydrotec power cubes created and tested in Pontiac also will be made in Brownstown Township, though GM hasn't said yet when that manufacturing operation will be open for production.

Employees at the lab in Pontiac provide information on their testing to the manufacturing operation and vice versa.

"We talk about no daylight, there's no daylight between the manufacturing team, the product engineering team and the operations team," Young said. "We are hand-in-hand developing part and process and furthering the technology quicker because of it.”

The build area of the lab is where the fuel cell stacks come together to build fuel cell systems and power cubes for various applications. This is the final stop before the fuel cell systems and power cubes are sent off to customers.

While the fuel cell organization acts like a startup, it's also part of a much larger organization, which is helpful for growth, Haq said: "Whatever issues, we run to different experts within General Motors, which gives us a competitive advantage because we've been building engines, transmissions and batteries for a number of years, and we can take those experiences and leverage them to accelerate the development of the fuel cell systems.”

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