General Motors has dropped hints about its interest in fuel cell electric vehicles over the years, but apparently that is just the tip of a much bigger iceberg. The company has made some interesting moves in recent months which suggest a more holistic approach to the green hydrogen economy of the future, regardless of what the skeptics may say.
GM Fishes For Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles…
GM’s interest in hydrogen caught the CleanTechnica eye back in 2013, after the company introduced a demonstration fleet of 16 fuel cell electric vehicles for the US Army in Hawaii. The Army demonstration was built on GM’s Project Driveway fleet of 119 vehicles, which launched in 2007 and racked up almost 3 million miles of driving in six years.
What caught our eye was a new hookup between GM and Honda. Honda was also hammering away at the challenge of introducing fuel cell vehicles to the US market. The collaboration launched in July of 2013, providing for the two companies to share the combined total of 1,200 fuel cell patents they compiled in the years leading up to 2012.
GM introduced its “SURUS” fuel cell electric vehicle platform in 2017, but it still didn’t have a fuel cell EV in commercial production by 2020, though a preliminary agreement with Nikola Motor involving the Badger fuel cell electric pickup truck suggested that activity was about to pick up. Unfortunately for FCEV fans, Nikola fell on its face following a scandal involving former CEO Trevor Milton. Nikola has since recovered itself, but the relationship with GM foundered.
And Keeps Fishing…
GM has not been idling around since then. As part of its collaboration with Honda, GM set its sights on developing fuel cells for heavy duty use, resulting in its Hydrotec suite of fuel cell systems.
In 2021 GM launched a hydrogen-powered flight collaboration with Hydrotec and the aerospace company Liebnerr. GM is also collaborating with Navistar on fuel cells for trucks, and with Wabtec on fuel cells for locomotives. GM has also been deploying Hydrotec modules as transportable charging stations for battery-electric vehicles.
The sticky wicket, of course, is the continued reliance on natural gas and other fossil resources to produce the hydrogen needed to run fuel cells. GM has a plan for that, too. Last November, GM enlisted Nel USA, a unit of Norway’s Nel ASA, to help push down the cost of electrolyzer systems and pump up the green hydrogen supply chain. Electrolysis is used to “split” hydrogen gas from water, as a more sustainable alternative to the conventional steam reformation system used to produce hydrogen from natural gas.
…And Catches A $400 Million Electrolyzer Factory
In the latest development in the green hydrogen field, last week Nel announced that will build a $400 million electrolyzer factory in GM’s home state of Michigan. In a press release, Nel made it clear that a number of other US states were contending for the new factory, but proximity to GM was among the attractions that drew it to Michigan.
“…the short distance to General Motors, headquartered in Detroit, has played a decisive role in the choice of state,” Nel states. “The two companies collaborate to develop further and improve Nel’s PEM electrolyser technology.”
Nel also cited Charlie Freese, executive director of Hydrotec, who said: “Having Nel’s new facility close to our home base of HYDROTEC development, in southeastern Michigan, will help us more quickly accelerate our electrolyzer collaboration.”
More Green Hydrogen For Michigan
Nel noted that other significant factors were at work, too. “The choice of Michigan is based on an overall assessment of what the state can offer in terms of financial incentives, access to a highly skilled workforce, and cooperation with universities, research institutions, and strategic partners,” said CEO Håkon Volldal.
“I will also highlight the personal engagement from Governor Whitmer and her competent and service-minded team,” Volldal added.
The press release didn’t go into much detail, but the university and research angle probably includes the “MI Hydrogen” initiative launched by the University of Michigan, which combines resources from the school’s Office of the Vice President for Research, Michigan Engineering and the School for Environment and Sustainability.
“A majority of hydrogen production in the United States and abroad is generated from steam methane reforming of natural gas, which is problematic from a climate change perspective,” MI Hydrogen notes, indicating that the initiative will focus on more sustainable solutions.
From Green Hydrogen To Green Ammonia
Nel’s relationship with Michigan also enables it to build relationships with other states in the Midwest. Michigan is a member of the Midwestern Hydrogen Coalition R&D initiative spearheaded by the US Energy Department’s Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Illinois.
The M-H2 Coalition was initially conceived as the 12-state Midwestern Hydrogen And Fuel Cell Coalition back in 2019, with a focus on renewable hydrogen. M-H2 formally launched in September of 2022 with a shorter name and a more compact roster of participating states. The list now includes seven states that Nel could network with, through its relationship with Michigan: Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin as well as Michigan.
The focus has widened to include the potential for fossil-sourced hydrogen. That’s not such great news for green hydrogen fans, but it could help M-H2 compete for a slice of the $8 billion funding pie offered by the Energy Department’s Regional Hydrogen Hub program. The hydrogen hub program is funded through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law of 2021, which stipulates that the overall network of 8-10 hubs must include some degree of fossil energy input.
M-H2 points out that its member states can produce hydrogen from a variety of sources. That would presumably put fossil energy in play along with biogas and water electrolysis, helping the alliance contend against the green hydrogen powerhouses emerging elsewhere in the US. In the northeast, for example, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, and Rhode Island intend to tap into their vast offshore wind resources to gain an edge in the hydrogen hub competition.
In a Memorandum of Understanding last fall, MH-2 draws attention to infrastructure advantages in the Midwest region.
“The Midwest has the largest hydrogen infrastructure network in the nation in the form of ammonia production, pipelines, and ‘nurse’ tanks, given that ammonia is an ideal hydrogen carrier,” MH-2 explains.
The region also encompasses an “established market and distribution/storage network for ammonia as an agricultural input, one of the primary existing end-uses for hydrogen,” M-H2 adds. “The existing ammonia distribution network is arguably the most extensive hydrogen distribution network in the country.”
Although the MOU does include room for fossil-sourced hydrogen, it’s not clear what will happen when the dust settles. If M-H2 does not make the winner’s circle for the Energy Department’s hydrogen hub program, the fossil energy stipulation would be moot, opening up more space for leading green hydrogen stakeholders like GM and Nel to make their case.
In addition, regardless of what the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law stipulates, there might not be much demand for fossil-sourced hydrogen in the sparkling green economy of the future.
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Image: GM’s “SURUS” hydrogen fuel cell vehicle platform (courtesy of GM Hydrotec).
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