June 25, 2022

The US Army began evaluating the Chevrolet Colorado ZH2 fuel cell electric truck in 2017. It is based on the all-terrain pickup Colorado ZR2 from GM.

GM

General Motors’ plans for hydrogen fuel cells, a long-promised technology, are taking shape as the company invests $ 35 billion in electric and autonomous vehicles by 2025.

GM began working on fuel cells more than 50 years ago with little to no commercial success. But it wants to change that in the years to come with its Hydrotec fuel cell system, which could be a dark horse to expanding GM’s activities outside of the automotive space.

GM sees enormous opportunities for fuel cells in the military, in commercial vehicles and other modes of transport such as rail and shipping. GM is exploring these and other areas as a complementary solution to its emerging battery electric vehicle business known as Ultium.

“Batteries have to play a role, but to fully electrify and handle the range of different applications we’re talking about, you also need hydrogen fuel cells,” said Charlie Freese, who heads GM’s global fuel cell business. “They complement each other very well.”

Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles and devices function similarly to battery electric vehicles, but instead of pure batteries they run on electricity from hydrogen and oxygen, with water vapor being the only by-product. They are filled with a fuel nozzle almost as quickly as conventional gasoline and diesel vehicles.

As a rule of thumb, according to Freese, batteries are best suited to replace gasoline-powered vehicles and devices, while fuel cells are better suited for longer ranges and vehicles like semi-trailers that run on diesel fuel.

“Each market will be a little different, but what is clear is that the world is moving towards electrification,” he said. “Fuel cell technology has moved dramatically down the cost curve and continues to do so.”

GM announced last week that it will launch its third generation Hydrotec fuel cells with even higher power density and lower costs by the middle of the decade.

Expansion of GM

Fuel cell vehicles face the same challenges as BEVs, including consumer adoption, fueling infrastructure, and costs. This is one of the reasons GM is looking outside of the auto industry to drive demand.

On Thursday, GM announced a contract with Liebherr-Aerospace to develop a demonstrator system for hydrogen fuel cell power generation for aircraft. That announcement came two days after the automaker said it had worked with Wabtec Corp. signed a letter of intent for the development and supply of battery and hydrogen fuel cell systems for freight locomotives.

According to Wabtec Corp. the FLXdrive is the world’s first 100% battery-powered heavy-duty freight locomotive.

Wabtec

GM also has agreements or partnerships regarding Hydrotec with Navistar and the competitive EV start-up Nikola. The programs are in addition to several previous programs between GM and the US military using hydrogen fuel cells, including a pickup truck and an unmanned submarine.

“We’re using some sort of land, sea, and air approach,” Freese said. “It’s the energy storage density for long missions, fast refueling and quiet stealth, low thermal initiatives. Those are things that are very important in these applications. And they carry over to some of the others.” [industries]. “

Freese said GM expected to commercialize fuel cells for real-world solutions “soon” and declined to elaborate on those plans. GM has a joint venture with Honda Motor to offer a fuel cell vehicle called Clarity to develop and manufacture fuel cells at a Michigan facility.

The closest-term product GM has announced is with Illinois-based truck maker Navistar. At the beginning of the year, the companies announced a collaboration on a fuel cell-powered tractor-trailer.

General Motors will deliver its Hydrotec fuel cell power cubes to Navistar for use in its production fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) – the International RHTM Series.

GM

According to the companies, JB Hunt Transport is expected to be the first customer to pilot the tractor units and the hydrogen refueling system in late 2022. The first trucks are expected to be offered for sale in 2024.

‘Uncertain future

Many believe hydrogen can help decarbonise industries where batteries are insufficient due to their lower energy density and heavier weight. However, technology is still expected to take a back seat to BEVs, which are cheaper and easier for consumers and businesses to understand.

“The transportation future of hydrogen looks uncertain given the tug-of-war with batteries,” said BTIG analyst Gregory Lewis in a recent announcement to investors. “We expect hydrogen to be used in niche applications.”

Tesla boss Elon Musk, whose company only sells BEVs, has described fuel cells as “foolish cells” and “insanely stupid”.

But there is a growing market for the technologies amid a global surge in decarbonization legislation, officials say. Fortune Business Insights predicts the global fuel cell market will be $ 29 billion by 2028.

The key GM is seeking could be lowering costs for commercial customers, many of whom have routes and on-site refueling more likely than consumers.

“Industrial applications like steel, refineries and chemicals, where green hydrogen can be produced and consumed on site (avoiding transportation costs) appear to be early adopters of green hydrogen,” said Lewis. “In addition, hydrogen is already gaining importance for industrial use in the zero-emission policy of some countries.”

– CNBC’s Michael Bloom contributed to this report.