GM, Honda join forces for one fuel cell design

Since General Motors and Honda teamed to develop hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles two years ago, the partners have slashed the size, weight and cost of the fuel cell stack, the chemical processor that combines hydrogen and oxygen to make the electricity that powers the vehicle, says Charlie Freese, GM executive director of global fuel cell engineering.

The stack’s “next generation is running in our laboratory now,” Freese said. “Weight is down by almost one half. Size is also down by almost one half. And cost has come down in orders of magnitude.”

Freese, 47, spoke about the GM-Honda partnership’s progress with Staff Reporter Richard Truett.

Q: Does the fuel cell stack continue to shrink?

A: Yes. Absolutely. It shrinks in active area [the part of the cell that produces electricity]. And it shrinks in the height of the stack, the number of cells and how much current we can put through it. All the stuff that makes it work also shrinks: the compressors, injectors and all the manifolding. There is a lot of opportunity there.

Why did GM and Honda partner when Hyundai, Toyota, Daimler, Nissan-Renault and others are perhaps more visible in fuel cells?

A fuel cell has got some parts that you just have to standardize and get the volume up. Doing that alone in a low-volume environment will always be a tough scenario. In terms of running through learning cycles rapidly, it’s good to do that with a partner as well. So, you’ve got Honda and GM. GM is No. 1 in the world in fuel cell patents. Honda is No. 2. By combining forces, we have the broadest patent portfolio in the business. And that is an amazing way to bring new, fresh ideas together. You may not want exactly what GM has or exactly what Honda has, but together we can integrate much better ideas.

How does the partnership work? Is it an exchange of information, or are engineers from both companies working together on projects?

When we constructed this deal, everything was set up around the one-team approach. Every time we got into a discussion, everything was framed around “What would we do if we were one company?” That’s what everything was based on. Literally there are Honda engineers sitting in my facility and my engineers are sitting in their facility. And they are working on it. We don’t sit there and divide the work up and say, “This is you and this is me.” If they have one engineer in a certain discipline who can work on something, they’re on that with maybe five of our engineers or vice versa.

Does that mean when a product is eventually launched it would share common components?

The idea is we have a single part number between both companies. So we can get the scale and reduce the cost of development.

How’s the progress on the fuel cell stack?

It’s coming down very, very quickly in terms of precious metal loading. The workhorse fuel cell stacks have 29 grams of platinum. The next-gen stack is down in the 10 gram range. The next generation is running in our laboratory now. Weight is down by almost one half. Size is also down by almost one half. And cost has come down in orders of magnitude.

Is the goal of the Honda partnership to make a profit off the technology when the vehicles come out?

The way I think about it is any automaker can do one fuel cell vehicle and anyone can do a few. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. It’s going to be: How can you develop the staying power to take this thing to higher volume solutions? That is going to depend on having low-cost, high-performance, durable, safe, very reliable systems.

I’m not speaking of any specific competitors, but the fact is you can subsidize your way through production, but that does not mean it is an economical solution. What we are trying to do is take the cost out, drive it out relentlessly and get to something that you can market in higher volume where you are not paying your customer to take the car. That’s the key. Otherwise, this is just an experiment.

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