TRAVERSE CITY, Mich.-A new breed of vehicle, powered not by a gasoline engine alone but a fuel cell, is a step closer to rolling into service bays across the nation, but it will likely get its cue from its use to heat homes and businesses.
General Motors Corp. believes the key to fuel cells fits in the front door of your house-before it fits into your car door.
GM has had a stationary fuel cell generating 5 kilowatts of electricity at its research lab in Honeyoe Falls, N.Y., for six months, said Larry Burns, GM's vice president of research and development. Five kilowatts is enough to power a house. GM disclosed the effort at the annual Management Briefing Seminars.
The auto maker is searching for partners to help it commercialize the stationary fuel cell and begin selling it within two years, said a source close to the project who asked not to be identified.
The benefit of pushing ahead with the stationary fuel cell is it can lead to volume production of fuel cell components, which will help lower the costs of fuel cells for vehicles, Mr. Burns said.
The fuel cell generates electricity from the chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, with only water vapor as the by-product. Because no hydrogen-refueling infrastructure exists, GM also has been developing a reformer to extract hydrogen from gasoline, natural gas or methane.
In a GM press release, Mr. Burns noted that the use of fuel cells in home-heating situations ``gets people comfortable'' with them ``before they get introduced to meet the more demanding requirements of automobiles.''
Smaller, more powerful The prototype stationary unit is about the size of a china cabinet. But consumer versions are expected to be no bigger than a conventional air conditioner unit, Mr. Burns said.
Had the units been available this year, they could have helped ease California's massive energy shortages, he said. The fuel cell stack can easily be scaled up to provide enough power to run a 100-home subdivision or an auto factory.
GM plans to enter the market first with stationary fuel cells to:
Establish a network of suppliers and cut parts costs as production increases.
Gain experience with fuel cells in homes where the system stresses are less than in vehicles.
Create a profitable business that will help offset some of the costs of developing fuel cells for automobiles. GM has committed billions of dollars to the project with the goal of becoming the first automaker to sell 1 million fuel-cell-powered vehicles.
Get consumers accustomed to the power source before asking them to make the transition to fuel-cell-powered cars.
``We learned from the EV-1 that we can't bring technology to the market before it is ready,''' Mr. Burns said.
GM officials wouldn't say how much the home-based unit would cost. But a source close to the project said it could save consumers as much as 30 percent on their power bills.
With most of the technical hurdles out of the way, GM is seeking a partner to mass-produce the unit.
It is unclear if the GM stationary fuel cell will carry a GM brand name or if GM will license the technology and outsource the complete manufacture of the unit.
Growing competition GM likely won't be alone in the market for home fuel cells. Ballard Power Systems of Vancouver, British Columbia, also recently announced that it was testing a stationary unit that runs on hydrogen and generates 60 kilowatts.
Mr. Burns began his presentation in Traverse City by driving a Chevrolet S10 pickup powered by a gasoline-fed fuel cell-the first time it has shown a running vehicle with the gasoline reformer technology. The fuel cell stack and reformer take up about one-third of the truck's bed.
``Last year, when I was here to announce that GM was revving up the fuel cell race, the gasoline fuel processor was so large I couldn't bring it to show you,'' Mr. Burns said. ``Today, I am happy to report that the fuel processor is significantly smaller than it was a year ago.''
GM has been developing the onboard gasoline reformer to allow consumers to refuel their vehicles the same as always. BMW, Ford, DaimlerChrysler and Honda are pursuing hydrogen and other non-standard fuels.
The fuel cell stack in the S10 is smaller and generates 25 percent more power than the previous generation that GM developed last year, said Byron McCormick, executive director of GM's Global Alternative Propulsion Center.