Drennen on Future of Fuel Cells – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
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Drennen on Future of Fuel Cells

In an article that looks at the development of fuel cell-powered vehicles and their impending evolution, the Democrat and Chronicle newspaper quotes Tom Drennen, associate professor of economics and chair of the environmental studies department at HWS, as an energy expert.

The article cites Drennen as saying the two likely leaders in the fuel cell race are “GM and Honda which has a fleet of hydrogen-powered fuel cell sedans being demonstrated around the country now.”

“Both GM and Honda are saying, ‘We have these cars on the road, we know how to mass produce them … but we don’t have the hydrogen,'” the article quotes Drennen. “It’s going to take a big government push to get enough hydrogen out there. Industry cannot do this alone. It’s going to be a little bit risky – why would they want to spend the money converting fuel stations?”

A member of the HWS faculty since 1995, Drennen earned a B.S. in nuclear engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.A. in Public Affairs from the University of Minnesota, and a Ph.D. in resource economics from Cornell University. In 2006, he received the Hobart and William Smith Excellence in Teaching Award.

Drennen is the author of “Pathways to a Hydrogen Future,” which seeks to untangle competing visions of a hydrogen economy, explain the trade-offs and obstacles, and offer recommendations for a path forward. The results are based on “The Hydrogen Futures Simulation Model,” developed at Sandia National Laboratories, where he is senior economist.

The full article follows.


Democrat and Chronicle
Fuel cells on track for a distinct future
Matthew Daneman • Staff writer • January 30, 2009

The heart of General Motors’ fuel cell-powered Chevy Equinox is a brick of advanced materials science about the size of a large microwave oven. GM’s small fleet of fuel cell sport utility vehicles on the road in the United States and Germany all are powered by that boxy stack of fuel cells, which combines hydrogen and oxygen into water and electricity.

But that fuel cell technology under those hoods, at three years old, already is passé. In a lab at GM’s Fuel Cell Activities facility in Honeoye Falls sits the next generation of those engines – about half the size, lighter and more durable. And researchers at the R&D facility are working on pushing fuel cells further in a race to make a viable alternative to the internal combustion engine in time for fuel cell vehicles to be on dealers’ lots in about six years.

“We’ve made a lot of progress in the last three years,” said Daniel B. O’Connell, the facility’s director of global field service, support and infrastructure.
But that research and development is being done in a heated race with competitors all rushing to do the same thing first and as GM and other automakers also are rolling out a variety of battery-powered electric cars and electricity/gasoline hybrids.

The two leaders in the fuel cell race likely are GM and Honda, which has a fleet of hydrogen-powered fuel cell sedans being demonstrated around the country now, said Thomas E. Drennen, an associate professor of economics at Hobart and William Smith Colleges who specializes in energy issues.

But while both have working vehicles and are working on getting unit prices down, Drennen said, the issue hanging over the fuel cell vehicle movement is the lack of refueling stations.

“Both GM and Honda are saying, ‘We have these cars on the road, we know how to mass produce them … but we don’t have the hydrogen,'” he said. “It’s going to take a big government push to get enough hydrogen out there. Industry cannot do this alone. It’s going to be a little bit risky – why would they want to spend the money converting fuel stations?”

A year ago last month, GM began rolling out a fleet of 100 Equinoxes, putting them in the hands of drivers around the country as loaners. The fuel cell powertrain systems behind them were designed and built at the Honeoye Falls site.
“We have a hard time getting them back,” O’Connell said. “Jay Leno doesn’t want to ever give his back.”

So far, O’Connell said, the fleet has racked up 500,000 miles, while GM has received terabytes of data from the vehicles and customer feedback from the drivers. In October, the effort went international as 10 fuel cell SUVs were sent to Berlin. And the company is working on trying to get clearance for a set to be shipped to Asia.

But the effort also has to do with drumming up publicity both for fuel cell vehicles in general. GM’s gamble is that putting out the vehicles will help spur the conversion of thousands of filling stations around the country to accommodate hydrogen tanks for fuel cell fill up.

GM’s fuel cell work revolves around a cluster of buildings on a heavily secured plot of land in the village of Honeoye Falls. And the company has been pumping increasing resources into that effort. In the past decade, employment at the facility has gone from fewer than 50 to more than 400 today. Every GM board member and the CEO have been through the facility in the past year or so. “We’re very closely watched,” said Andrew Bosco, chief engineer of product engineering.

GM’s research efforts are revolving around two areas: fuel cells’ cost and durability. While the company declined to give specifics, the cost of a fuel cell powertrain needs to be about a tenth of what it would be today in order to be commercially viable, O’Connell said.

“Ultimately what the consumer’s interested in is costs per mile,” said O’Connell. Conventional cars, powered by gasoline, cost 12 to 20 cents per mile. GM’s goal is fuel cells that cost in the range of 5 to 6 cents a mile, he said.

Meanwhile, the Honeoye Falls research also is focusing on durability issues – creating fuel cell powertrains that will run for 150,000 miles, Bosco said.
And the centerpiece of both those research efforts is a membrane of coated polymer about the thickness of Saran Wrap, which channels electrons from the process into an electric current.

“The whole (fuel cell) system is the care and feeding of that membrane,” Wetter said.

Going from the fuel cell set-ups under the hood of the Equinoxes and what the company is working on today involved close to 80 patents worth of discoveries, Bosco said. And as those Equinoxes continue being tested on the road for the next two to three years, GM plans to swap out the older fuel cell powertrain systems with newer versions, said David Wetter, manufacturing engineering manager.

Like driving a Toyota Prius or even an electric golf cart, getting behind the wheel of a fuel cell Equinox takes getting used to. There is none of the noise or vibration that comes with starting your internal combustion Camry or Focus. Once you turn the key, and the vehicle goes through roughly a six-second startup process, it can be difficult to tell if the vehicle even is on until a green light on the dash indicates it’s ready to drive. In motion, it has the same pickup as any of its gas-powered cousins.

But hydrogen comes with one hiccup – dramatic pictures of the Hindenburg going up in flames, which 72 years later still influence today what people think about the safety of hydrogen, O’Connell said. “There’s a big public perception problem we have with hydrogen,” Bosco said.

Before rolling out the Equinoxes, he said, the company did numerous crash tests on the vehicle and also shot at the hydrogen fuel tanks.

“I think it’s as safe or safer than cars on the road today,” O’Connell said.

MDANEMAN@DemocratandChronicle.com