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In an attempt to overcome a major obstacle toward mass-producing fuel cell vehicles, General Motors Corp. has acquired a 20 percent interest in Quantum Technologies, a company that specializes in producing hydrogen storage tanks.
“An alliance between GM and Quantum is the next logical step on this long road to a hydrogen future,” said Larry Burns, GM vice president for research and development and planning. Fuel cells create electricity from a reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, with water vapor the only tailpipe emission. However, because hydrogen is extremely flammable and not readily available at filling stations, the automakers have been forced to look for alternative fuels. One hurdle to extending the range of a fuel cell vehicle is the ability to efficiently store compressed hydrogen at high pressure.
Burns said current hydrogen tanks store the volatile gas at 2,500 to 3,000 pounds per square inch (psi) providing a driving range of only 100 to 150 miles. Current internal combustion vehicles using gasoline can travel up to 400 miles between fill-ups, Burns said. But Quantum Technologies CEO Syed Hussain says his company is developing a hydrogen tank that can withstand 10,000 psi, enabling a driving range of 300 to more than 500 miles. This has been accomplished, he said, by building the tanks in three layers: an inner plastic layer to prevent corrosion, a middle layer made of carbon fiber, and a third, outer layer Hussain said is made of a material much like that of a bulletproof vest to help prevent an explosion in the event of a crash. Burns says the tank, called TriShield by Quantum, is still too expensive for the mass market and must undergo more testing before it is ready for practical use.
“Infrastructure is also an important hurdle,” Burns said. “We have to have the ability to produce the hydrogen, distribute the hydrogen and store the hydrogen on board the vehicle,” he said. Hussain said a working hydrogen storage tank that can withstand 10,000 psi will be produced by the end of the year. Burns predicted there would be hundreds of thousands of fuel cell vehicles on the road by 2010. However, he said many of those vehicles may be sold first as means of public transportation or as part of corporate or government fleets. As an interim step, Burns said the industry would have to settle for fuel cells that include on-board reformers which extract hydrogen from gasoline. Fuel cell vehicles using gasoline are not emission-free as are those using hydrogen — although tailpipe emissions are roughly half of those from internal combustion engines, Burns said. This type of vehicle might be on the road by 2005 or 2006.
Jason Mark, transportation analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said he hopes the alliance is a signal “GM is taking a more serious look at fuel cells.” “Our feeling is hydrogen cars work well today,” Mark said. “Let’s get about the business of building hydrogen filling stations.”
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