Monday, May 18, 2009

GM's Great Fuel Cell Powered Equinox That You May Never Own

The other day I gave high praise to two college students who succeeded in building a hydrogen fuel cell powered motorcycle. However, that doesn't take away from the fact the General Motors has invested over $1 billion in hydrogen fuel cell experiments and now has a fleet of experimental vehicles as well as few limited production models that have logged over 750,000 miles. But the cold hard fact here is that the public may never really see many real production models of the Equinox or other fuel cell vehicles because the Obama Administration has apparently lost faith in the future of fuel cell vehicles. Fuel cell funding research money from the federal government has been cut by $100 million this year, leaving just $68 million.

A few years ago, BUSINESS WEEK magazine in an article wrote about some ongoing problems with cold weather damage to the membranes that converted the hydrogen to electric power. However, newer technology allowed that cold weather problem to be overcome. However another big hurdle has been the cost per unit of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, which might have cost up to $70,000 per vehicle if costs could not be reduced. A further problem is the high cost to convert over existing gas stations to supply hydrogen instead to power this new generation of vehicles.

Over years of ongoing research and investment in new technology, GM has been over to overcome previous technology difficulties such as the cold weather problems with early prototypes to build a highly functional and reliable fleet of Equinox fuel cell vehicles with even a few limited production models now available for sale. Yet the future of fuel cell vehicles doesn't look too bright despite all of private and public money put into development of these alternative powered vehicles. The public may never really see real production examples of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

The future of many alternative type engines ended for various reasons. Chrysler had hoped in the early 60's to build some gas turbine powered automobiles. However, these engines spun at speeds around 60,000 rpm and had to be greatly geared down, but produced excessive amounts of nitrogen oxide as well as producing great heat through the exhaust. Most of these cars were eventually crushed down by Chrysler for legal reasons and only a few survive as museum examples out of a fleet of 50 experimental models tested. The cars strangely sounded like a giant vacuum cleaner, compared to the sound from conventional V8 engines as well.

Interestingly, even though the Stanley Steamer automobiles were highly functional and reliable automobiles with a high top speed, steam powered engines were not a favorite of the public for several reasons including a longer warm-up time to be able to drive as well as some fears by customers of potential boiler explosions. However, in more recent years William Lear who owned the jet aircraft company had a team of engineers including one of my relatives who was the main engineer who worked to produce a modern version of the steam car. Lear developed a steam car with a new type of closed circuit system that was able to be fired up in seconds. It was both powerful and reliable, yet the modern steam engine project eventually died.

The Wankel rotary engine was another engine design that eventually faded from the marketplace. Mazda heavily used this engine for a few years, but eventually only used it in their sports cars. And GM had intended to build the engine as well, and AMC intended for the Pacer to use the engine, but GM decided against the project at some point, leaving the Pacer without an engine, forcing the huge and long inline AMC 6 cylinder engine to be used instead which even extended into the passenger cab due to the short hood design.

Saab and a few other car manufacturers once used two-stroke engines in their cars. However, fuel and oil mixing as well as high pollution have eventually forced this engine to be used mainly in some motorcycles and motor scooters.

Some form of electric cars now look to be the most likely, with more and more hybrids and extreme hybrids in the coming years. The hydrogen fuel cell cars once looked to be the most likely replacement for the internal combustion engine. And now after GM has apparently made some very good running prototypes and limited product models of these vehicles that have been tested for many miles, the federal government ssems to have lost faith in these modern technology design vehicles which few may now ever see the marketplace.
Unfortunately the price tag for the few production hydrogen fuel cell automobiles that exist still remains pretty high, however advancing technology seems to be cutting those costs. However, that might be a losing battle for an alternative powered vehicle design that might not catch on afterall since Washington seems to be losing faith here.


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