Teaming up on commercial production of hydrogen fuel cells Metal Tech News - February 7, 2024
In the next move toward zero-emissions solutions beyond battery-electric vehicles, General Motors and Honda Motor Co. announced their switch to a co-developed system producing hydrogen fuel cells commercially. Both manufacturers announced their intention to shift away from diesel and focus on hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), marking this as the first time they have been produced at scale.
Honda and GM engineers focused on lowering costs by advancing the cell design, increasing durability using corrosion-resistant materials and improving low-temperature operation, automating aspects of assembly, simplifying supporting auxiliary equipment, utilizing common sourcing and reducing the use of precious metals.
Due to the almost complete lack of refueling infrastructure, compressed hydrogen as a fuel source has persisted as a dream for only a few automotive manufacturers, in spite of being an excellent potential alternative to replace gasoline. Though still considered in their pioneering stage, hydrogen fuel cells' advantages in mobile power generation and heavy-duty vehicles have seen growing interest and uses.
They just haven't gained enough traction in the market for passenger cars – until now.
Hydrogen fuel cells are an excellent sustainable technology since they use compressed hydrogen as a fuel source. Storage, however, is one of the hurdles faced by automakers interested in the switch.
Due to lower energy content by volume, hydrogen requires storage as a gas under low temperatures or as a liquid under high pressure. Overcoming this challenge is crucial to success since passenger vehicles have a comparatively low capacity for fuel storage.
While Honda and GM have been working together since 2013, their Fuel Cell System Manufacturing plant (FCSM) was founded back in 2017, leveraging both GM and Honda's expertise in a joint venture where the cells are being produced at an $85 million facility in Brownstown, Michigan. Both companies have big plans for the results.
"Our new fuel cell system is at the core of Honda hydrogen technology and our strategy to expand the range of applications that use hydrogen to facilitate the decarbonization of society," said Jay Joseph, American Honda's VP of sustainability and business development. "This is not simply a choice between battery electric or hydrogen fuel cell technology, but selecting the right energy source, in the right place, for the right purpose, to achieve carbon neutrality as quickly and efficiently as possible."
GM has also been working on hydrogen fuel cells as a replacement for diesel in applications like generators, semis, construction equipment, military vehicles and heavy-duty mining trucks. While passenger vehicles wait on this new technology and its supporting infrastructure, there are plenty of uses now.
Two exemplary uses are in products from GM's Hydrotec: the Mobile Power Generation System DC (direct current) fast charging solution for electric vehicles while untethered from any grid, and a hydrogen fuel cell power module for Komatsu's 930E electric drive mining truck, the world's best-selling heavy duty electric haul truck.
"At GM, we believe fuel cells can play an integral role in a zero-emissions future, helping to electrify heavier-duty applications, beyond passenger vehicles," said Charlie Freese, executive director of Hydrotec. "Mining trucks are among the largest, most capable vehicles used in any industry, and we believe hydrogen fuel cells are best suited to deliver zero emissions propulsion to these demanding applications."
Honda plans to sell 2,000 of the new fuel cells yearly by 2025, with about a quarter of those earmarked for the next electric CR-V that will be built at the Performance Manufacturing Center in Ohio. The company is also targeting business opportunities in commercial vehicles, construction equipment, and backup power stations.
Hydrogen itself can be produced from a diverse array of processes, with its own environmental impact and energy efficiency depending on how it is produced – be it fossil fuels, biomass, or water electrolysis.
One of the more renewable resources of hydrogen may now come from plastic waste. GM and Honda are also developing a new technology using pyrolysis, which uses high temperatures and pressure to break plastic down into hydrogen, a more sustainable method than traditional fossil fuel processes.
The idea of turning waste into hydrogen isn't new – the Hyundai Motor Company is also focusing on a circular supply chain strategy that includes plastic- and waste-to-hydrogen processes. This would be a significant development bolstering the up-and-coming FCEVs market with a green hydrogen energy source while reducing the impact of plastic pollution worldwide.
While the process of plastic-to-hydrogen melts waste plastics and produces hydrogen through gasification, waste-to-hydrogen ferments organic waste to create biogas that is treated to capture both carbon dioxide and hydrogen.
Hyundai has already begun testing waste-to-hydrogen in Indonesia and is contributing to the creation of federally financed hydrogen hubs in the U.S. while testing 30 Hyundai Xcient hydrogen fuel-cell semis at the Port of Oakland in California.
Recently, the Biden administration put forward legislation to lower the cost of hydrogen production in the hope of encouraging companies to invest in hydrogen production and infrastructure, and to incentivize companies with a tax credit for up to 30% of the cost of creating hydrogen from renewable sources. Those numbers will help companies like GM and Honda make hydrogen more affordable and accessible.
Hydrogen FCEVs sport high range, fast refilling, and zero tailpipe emissions. We expect to see more move away from industrial applications to the road in coming years as long as the cost of hydrogen engines and fuel cell production continues to drop.