GM eyeing 'viable' markets for fuel cells: locomotive and aerospace

Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

Detroit — General Motors Co.'s hydrogen fuel cell business is attempting to prove its capabilities with news this week that it's working with both locomotive and aerospace companies.

Hydrotec, a small business within GM, and Liebherr-Aerospace, a global supplier of on-board aircraft systems, on Thursday said they signed a joint development agreement to work on a hydrogen fuel cell-based electrical power generation system for aircraft. 

General Motors Co. and Liebherr-Aerospace will join forces to develop a hydrogen fuel cell-based demonstrator system for aircraft.

Earlier this week, GM said it would work with Wabtec Corp. to develop and commercialize the Hydrotec hydrogen fuel cell systems, and GM's Ultium batteries, for Wabtec's locomotives.

Both moves are part of GM's goal of a zero-emissions future and its efforts to prove the fuel cell technology it's worked on for more than 50 years has the potential to be used in several different applications.

"GM has gone into this transformation ... moving towards electrification, and we went in as an auto company, but we can come out as much more than an auto company," said Charlie Freese, executive director of GM's global Hydrotec. "This is a way to leverage technology investments and build new businesses and open up new revenue opportunities that are that are quite large and quite attractive from a business perspective."

GM has been working to commercialize both its fuel cell and battery technology as it moves toward an all-electric future and spends billions to get there.

Earlier this year, GM said its Hydrotec fuel cells, which are developed in partnership with Honda Motor Co., will be used on a fleet of Navistar Inc. manufactured trucks that will first be piloted in 2022 by J.B. Hunt Transport Inc., a prominent trucking company, and commercially available by 2024. 

GM Defense LLC used the fuel cell technology in the past for a project with the U.S. Army. Hydrotec is continuing to explore the potential for fuel-cell vehicles on military vehicles.

Last year, startup company Nikola Corp. and GM reached a memorandum of understanding for GM to supply fuel cells for Nikola's future semis. That took the place of a previously announced partnership that was quashed after Nikola was accused of fraud causing its stock to plummet. 

The end goal of the deals with Liebherr-Aerospace and Wabtec is to get the fuel cell technology in commercialized products, though Freese didn't provide estimated timeframes for that.

"The most interesting thing about it all is we can provide solutions that are not available in these markets with other technologies. We can provide sustainability solutions from an environmental standpoint, but we're not doing it in a way that it's not sustainable from a business model," Freese said. "It can be sustainable from a business model, as well."

Since fuel-cells offer longer range than their battery-powered peers, they make sense for the battlefield and in large transportation applications like airplanes. Batteries also aren't the best choice for these applications because of their weight, noted Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst at Guidehouse Insights, adding: "Batteries aren't really a viable solution for long haul aviation," but fuel cells could be.

"Most of the the R&D has already been done and now it's a matter of trying to find a market for it," Abuelsamid said. "These are potentially viable markets for fuel cell technology."

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