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Local fuel-cell efforts continue to move closer to the production stage as durability and cost issues are resolved, but experts say there is still work to be done before fuel-cell vehicles are released en masse.
In the Rochester area, General Motors Corp. and Delphi Automotive LLP both have fuel cells in development. GM's hydrogen fuel cell is in the pipeline to mass production but will require a supportive infrastructure to succeed. Delphi's solid oxide fuel cell will be used for auxiliary power in heavy trucks.
Two hundred vehicles powered by GM's hydrogen fuel cell have been on this area's roads for the past four years, racking up a cumulative 2.3 million miles, says Daniel O'Connell, director of GM's fuel-cell program in Honeoye Falls.
To drive down costs, GM has overcome difficulties with the amount of precious metals it uses in the production of the fuel cell. A hydrogen fuel cell uses hydrogen to create a chemical reaction that produces energy; precious metals like platinum are used as catalysts for the reaction.
"The trade-off on precious metals could be closer to one to one, so we would not be using significantly more than is in a catalytic converter that is used in cars today," O'Connell says.
GM worked with local companies to produce some of the components for its fuel-cell prototypes. Advanced Interconnect Manufacturing helped to build its wire harness system. President Ronald Komider says development on the harness is complete as GM works to tweak its fuel cell before moving to production.
Durability issues also have been resolved, and the last four years of development have refined the fuel cell.
"We have cut the size of the engine, the fuel-cell module, in half. We have cut the weight in half," O'Connell says. "We think we have a viable technology for volume production starting the pipeline."
The real advantage of the GM fuel cell is that it runs on clean-burning, zero-emission hydrogen. The success of hydrogen fuel cells will depend largely on the presence of fueling stations, Komider says.
"There is going to be quite a bit of acceptance that needs to happen in the general public to the fuel cells," he says. "There is not really good infrastructure right now to fuel that type of car, yet. It all has to be in place."
Mass production of GM's fuel cell is expected to begin in 2015, O'Connell says, but will depend on the availability of that supportive infrastructure. Giving drivers adequate access to hydrogen fuel, he says, would require an estimated 12,000 stations across the country. In comparison, O'Connell estimates there are about 170,000 traditional fueling stations.
An initiative sponsored by state Assemblyman Joseph Morelle, a Rochester-area Democrat, aims to create hydrogen fueling stations along Interstate 90. Morelle hosted a consortium for auto manufacturers in June and released a position paper, calling for a public-private partnership to prepare the state for green fueling.
Mark Peterson, president and CEO of Greater Rochester Enterprise Inc., says having the hydrogen infrastructure could bring jobs associated with the fuel cells to the area.
"We believe the fuel-cell automotive industry itself is going to produce 300,000 new jobs over the next decade, and even getting 10 percent of that could mean getting 30,000 new jobs in the state over the next six to eight years if we are successful in moving this initiative forward," he says.
In contrast to GM's offering, Delphi's solid oxide fuel cell does not require any extra supportive infrastructure and can run on both traditional and green fuels, like hydrogen or biodiesel. The Environmen-tal Vehicle Testing Laboratory at Delphi's Technical Center in Rochester develops and refines solid oxide fuel-cell technology.
High operating temperatures similar to those of a vehicle's catalytic converter allow fueling flexibility.
Dan Hennessy, chief engineer of advanced engineering at Delphi in Detroit, Mich., says high operating temperatures also allow the solid oxide fuel cell to be more efficient and less costly than hydrogen fuel cells.
The solid oxide fuel cell will serve auxiliary power needs on heavy-duty trucks, Hennessy says. It will not power the truck's drive train but will supply the cab with electricity. Extended cabs in heavy-duty trucks often include air-conditioning and heating units that draw on the main engine.
"We provide auxiliary power while the truck is idling, and we use much less fuel in the main engine and provide the trucker with the amount of comfort he needs to be able to spend the night," he says.
The Environmental Protection Agency recently passed new fuel economy standards for heavy trucks, calling for a reduction of up to 20 percent in fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by model year 2018. It estimates that the proposed reductions will save four gallons of fuel for every 100 miles traveled.
Hennessy says Delphi also is looking at other applications for the solid oxide fuel cell, including stationary power plants. He says the technology might be used on a small scale to power a home or on a large scale in an industrial power plant.
Delphi does not have a time frame for bringing the solid oxide fuel cell to market. Hennessy says it will be introduced for heavy trucks first.
"The major challenges are really focused around cost reduction and durability validation, and making sure they are right for the customers to use," he says.
The demand for fuel-cell technology, whether in main-engine or auxiliary applications, is strong. A 2010 report from the U.S. Department of Energy found that the number of fuel-cell units shipped from North America quadrupled from 2008 to 2010. The study also found that fuel-cell patents grew by 57 percent in 2010.
For companies like GM and Delphi, the race is on to develop fuel-cell technology that can decrease the environmental impact of their vehicles in a supportable way.
Says Hennessy: "We need to make sure that we are comfortable putting our names on this before we go to market."
Christine Loman is a freelance writer and a former Rochester Business Journal intern.
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