Copyrighted material: WSJournal
GM Hopes Engine of Future Sells Cars Now
November 29, 2006; Page B1
HONEOYE FALLS, N.Y. -- General Motors Corp. Chief Executive Rick Wagoner will go before an audience at the Los Angeles auto show today and outline a future powered by hybrid engines, batteries and other advanced fuel-saving technologies.
About 3,000 miles away, in this little village 40 miles south of Rochester, GM engineers are working to perfect the hardware that could transform Mr. Wagoner's vision into reality. In the process, they hope the troubled auto giant not only gets ahead of the next big thing in cars but also sells a few more of its current models, too.
In a pair of blue-and-gray buildings behind a tall security fence, GM scientists have quietly started building working fuel-cell engines that run on hydrogen and produce no exhaust other than pure water. The facility looks more like a computer-chip factory than an engine plant -- the most critical component is a clear liquid that technicians mix in a glass-walled, dust-free laboratory.
|General Motors is developing its fuel-cell technology at a plant in Honeoye Falls, N.Y.|
Until recently, GM kept quiet about its most advanced research. Honeoye Falls has rarely opened its doors to outsiders. But the company recently brought a small group of reporters here as part of a strategy to demonstrate that GM can compete technologically with Toyota Motor Corp. GM hopes it can beat Toyota to market, grabbing an early lead with this technology that will change how consumers think of the company and boost the image of its conventional vehicles.
Mr. Wagoner and other top GM executives believe Toyota has gained an edge by jumping ahead of other car makers on gas-electric hybrids. Toyota is now often viewed as the industry's innovation leader, while many consumers see the Big Three Detroit auto makers as laggards that only excel at making gas-guzzling trucks -- and at losing money in the U.S. market.
Fuel cells won't be a real mass market item for years. GM aims to sell just a few thousand fuel-cell cars in 2011, and tens of thousands a year by 2013.
The company faces fierce competition, though. Other auto makers are also developing fuel cells, and some, like Toyota and Honda Motor Co., have deep pockets to fund their work. GM, by contrast, is burdened with a junk debt rating and is spending more money than it's making in its auto business.
Honda has recently sought to stake out a position as a fuel-cell leader, saying its newest systems are small and light enough to fit in conventional sedans. Honda says limited leasing programs with the redesigned FCX fuel cell car are scheduled to begin in the U.S. and Japan in 2008.
A bigger question hanging over the fuel-cell debate is where drivers would be able to fill up with hydrogen. GM hopes to test a fleet of fuel-cell vehicles soon on the East Coast, but there are no places for consumers to refuel except for one hydrogen station near Washington, D.C.
Nevertheless, GM engineers here are optimistic they will have the hardware to bring fuel-cell vehicles to market fairly soon. The performance of GM current fuel-cell engine "is pretty good," said Matt Fronk, chief engineer for fuel-cell systems. "Now we want to cut cost while maintaining good durability."
The heart of the system is a stack of fuel cells that feature translucent polymer sheets coated with a thin layer of platinum and carbon particles. In the presence of these catalysts, hydrogen atoms pass through the sheets to bond with oxygen, creating an electric charge on one side. Three or four hundred of these cells stacked together generate enough electricity to power a motor for a car.
In Room 304 in the research building in Honeoye Falls, engineers are working to wring extra amps and volts out of each cell. There they are testing different types of sheets, each about half the width of a hair, and different catalyst combinations.
At one test station, a computer screen shows a test cell generating about a half a volt. "That's not bad, but we want the volts higher than that," says Mark Mathias, a research manager. Ideally, auto makers would like each cell to produce a tenth or two tenths more of a volt.
Across the way in the production building are more tangible signs of progress in a clean room fed with dust-free air. Here technicians are mixing a clear platinum-carbon solution that will be applied to membranes GM will use in working fuel-cell engines.
The technicians wear plastic booties over their shoes to keep from tracking in contaminants. Getting the balance of the two elements is critical; platinum is expensive, but using too little reduces the electricity the stack can generate.
Nearby in Room 174, another clean environment, engineers are tinkering with machines that compress the delicate membranes into stacks. "They're working on the tooling for a future GM engine factory," Mr. Fronk says. "We're trying to figure out how we'll assemble on a mass scale."
Outside Room 174 finished stacks are lined up on the floor. Each is a metal box measuring about one foot by two feet by nine inches, and has a tangle of cable sprouting from the top. Two stacks together put out about 90 kilowatts of power, about the same as a 120-horsepower engine, Mr. Fronk says. The stacks are tested and then mated to an electric motor and a gearbox.
The final product is about the size of a washing machine. On this day, three were lined up, ready to be shipped to a Canadian plant that will put them into Chevrolet Equinox test vehicles. Next to them was a mock up of a new version that is smaller, about the size of a window air conditioner. Although smaller, this version is as powerful as the larger fuel-cell engine. GM officials say this next-generation engine represents a real breakthrough because it is just about the size they would need to commercialize the technology.
"With this one," Mr. Fronk says, patting the mock-up with his hand, "we're almost where we want to be."