GM Picks Up Hydrogen Fuel Cell Torch (Again) After Nikola Debacle

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GM dropped a prospective contract with the hydrogen fuel cell startup Nikola like a hot potato last year, after questions surfaced about the latter company. That seemed to spell the end of GM’s interest in the technology, but only if you weren’t paying attention. GM has been dipping a toe into the fuel cell waters for many years, and all that hard work is about to pay off.

Up In The Air, Hydrogen Fuel Cell

For those of you new to the topic, fuel cells can power a zero emission electric car, like a battery. The big attraction relates to charging time. Instead of hooking up to a power source and sucking in enough energy to generate electricity for however many miles, fuel cells make electricity on-the-go, through a reaction between hydrogen and ambient oxygen.

Fueling up a fuel cell EV with hydrogen takes a matter of minutes, so aside from a few (as in, many) technology challenges, you kind of get the best of both worlds, zero emissions plus convenience being the most obvious ones.

Although fuel cell passenger cars have yet to crack the US mass market, the quick fueling time, long range, and power output of fuel cells makes them useful in all sorts of other applications, one of which is aviation.

That brings us to GM. Earlier this week, the company announced that it is applying its HYDROTEC fuel cell system to the aviation area, with an assist from the global firm Liebherr.

Under the agreement, Liebherr will deploy its test lab at its Liebherr-Aerospace facility in Toulouse, France, to demonstrate how a fuel cell power system could be used in flight.

“The demonstrator will incorporate GM’s precisely crafted fuel cells, HYDROTEC power cube and fuel cell system, along with the GM’s controls and models,” Liebherr explained, adding that “Lower emissions and lower noise than conventional aircraft operation: with these fuel cell advantages, among other things, both companies see a great opportunity for use in aviation.”

GM Hearts Fuel Cells, After All

Sweet. The big question is, what is HYDROTEC and where has it been hiding all this time?

Also, why fuel cells?

The answer could lie in the military side of GM’s business. Unlike Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, and several other car makers, GM has not been aggressively promoting fuel cell passenger cars in the US. Military contracts, though, open up a wide swath of other potential applications.

GM dropped one hint about its intentions back in 2012, when it unveiled a fleet of 16 hydrogen-powered vehicles for the US Army in Hawaii. All excited, the Army billed it as the first military hydrogen-powered fleet in the world.

The purpose behind the project was to identify fueling infrastructure needs and other support systems for hydrogen electric vehicles, and it appears that the Army was already eyeballing the field advantages of stealth and long lasting power.

“The Army continues to investigate technologies and partnerships that give the United States a decisive advantage,” said Lt. Gen. Francis J. Wiercinski, who was the commanding general of US Army, Pacific at the time.

Sure enough, the very next year GM hooked up with Honda to collaborate on a long term hydrogen venture that included storage as well as next-generation fuel cell R&D. That same year, GM also let word drop that its test fleet of 119 hydrogen test vehicles had racked up more than 100,000 miles.

By 2015 GM was collaborating with the Army on an off-road fuel cell pickup truck, and the company dropped another huge hint the following year, when it included fuel cell vehicles in a massive technology reorganization, underscored by changing the name of its Powertrain branch to GM Propulsion Systems.

Get Ready For The Hydrogen Fuel Cell Army Of The Future — With Batteries!

Things ramped up in the hydrogen-powered Army department in February 2017, when GM and Honda announced plans to build a huge fuel cell factory in Michigan. The company also put out the word that hydrogen would play a role in its plans for an all-electric future, and it unveiled a flexible-platform hydrogen truck that appears to be compatible military use.

Meanwhile, both fuel cell and battery EV fans got a letdown earlier this month, when  the National Academy of Sciences put out a press release under the headline, ““U.S. Army Should Continue to Use Hydrocarbon Fuel as Primary Source of Energy on the Battlefield, Says New Report,” which hammered home the point that 100% electric vehicles are not ready for combat.

Ouch! Actually, it wasn’t such bad news after all. As the headline hinted, the new report only covered a particularly fuel-intensive type of field deployment, not overall Army operations, which leaves plenty of room in the off-field space for zero emission vehicles.

On the plus side, the report also noted that currently available hybrid EV technology and energy efficiency  strategies could enable the Army to cut its use of diesel fuel by 30% in the proscribed scenario, pretty much right now.

Considering the latest developments in EV battery technology, that brings up the possibility of fuel cell – battery mashups, and that appears to be in the works for GM, too. Among other announcements last week, GM upped the ante on its next-gen automotive investments by 75% compared to pre-pandemic levels, with an emphasis on both hydrogen and battery technology.

In addition to its new aviation venture, GM is aiming to deploy HYDROTEC fuel cells and its Ultium battery in locomotives, in partnership with the railway firm Wabtec Corporation.

Electric locomotives are already becoming a thing, and Wabtec sees an opportunity to ramp up its 100% battery technology by adding fuel cells to the mix.

“By working with GM on Ultium battery and HYDROTEC hydrogen fuel cell technologies, we can accelerate the rail industry’s path to decarbonization and pathway to zero-emission locomotives by leveraging these two important propulsion technologies,” said the company’s CEO and President, Rafael Santana.

What About Green Hydrogen?

Yes, what about it? The sticky wicket is natural gas, which is still the primary source of the global hydrogen supply.

But, not for long. The market for renewable, green hydrogen is exploding, and it’s giving new life to at least two fuel cell companies that got off to a rocky start.

One is Plug Power, which began life pitching hydrogen forklifts. The company recently shifted gears into green hydrogen production and has now re-set its sights on the heavy duty application field.

Perhaps following along the same path is Nikola. The startup stumbled bigly last year but appears to be recovering, and production plans are back on track. In the latest development, earlier this week Nikola announced that it has purchased a stake in a waste-to-hydrogen plant in Indiana.

So far much of the green hydrogen activity has been in the area of pushing hydrogen out of water, but the waste-to-hydrogen market is also beginning to gather steam.

Hmmmm…waste-to-hydrogen could mean a lot of things. If it means extracting hydrogen from municipal solid waste or sewage, that is pretty cool. However, this particular facility is focusing on industrial waste in the form of petcoke, as well as forestry and agricultural waste, with the idea of capturing and burying carbon emissions.

That sounds a bit less than ideal from a circular economy perspective. On the other hand, a combination of technology improvements, market developments, and shifts in public policy could dry up the petcoke pipeline, so stay tuned for more on that.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Photo: “A rendering of the Silent Utility Rover Universal Superstructure (SURUS) platform with a truck chassis to show the potential of flexible fuel cell solutions” (courtesy of GM).


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