September 20, 2006

GM Is Plugged Into Electric Cars

By: by Matthew Fronk, Guest Essayist, Democrat & Chronicle


The General Motors research and development facility in Honeoye Falls is responsible for the technology and product development for PEM (proton exchange membrane) fuel cells to be used in automotive applications.

This program is one of GM's most advanced technical developments, and the support that the Rochester area has given us over the past several years is most appreciated. Our focus in Honeoye Falls is around the fuel-cell "stack" that generates electricity, as well as the rest of the system that drives the fuel-cell electric vehicle.

Fundamentally, a fuel-cell vehicle is an electric vehicle, and can be configured as either a hybrid or non-hybrid — both fueled by stored, on-board hydrogen.

Our work involves understanding and developing the physics and chemistry around the fuel-cell technology and reducing it to "engineering practice" — designs, systems and controls that can take best advantage of the materials we have to work with.

Our work is part of a global effort for GM; we have other colleagues working with us in Germany, Japan, California, Michigan and Canada.

Fuel cells today can operate automobiles (and there are many examples out there), and our work continues to be aimed at reducing costs and attaining the required automotive performance and durability requirements.

Fuel cells operate on hydrogen that can come from many sources. And a fuel-cell car has zero tailpipe emissions.

However, before we get to fuel cells in cars, there are many things we can do as a community and as individuals to conserve energy. To start with, our community could be instrumental in the development of hydrogen infrastructure — for example, the equipment to make hydrogen fuel and deliver it to the auto. We have access to hydropower right in the downtown area as well as wind to drive wind turbines for electrolyzers that can make hydrogen. We could be a leader in developing standards for vehicles and service stations for hydrogen refueling. We need a plan and the beginning of one is emerging with help from Greater Rochester Enterprise, Rochester city government and Rochester Institute of Technology in the form of a Hydrogen Village, an area of the city where hydrogen technology could blossom.

We need to continue to support the work at the University of Rochester on materials development as well as the work at RIT in design and manufacturing technologies for many of the alternative energy options.

As individuals, we have to ask: What can we do for our own personal transportation? The first step is to make yourself savvy about the options. Each of us will have different needs. Hybrids might make sense for some; E85 (an ethanol-gasoline mix) for others. Diesel or smaller vehicles might be the answer as well. A great Web site for information is It also shows you which GM cars are already E85 compatible.

Lastly, we must encourage our politicians to develop an effective energy policy to lessen U.S. dependence on fossil fuels and promote the use of alternatives. The time is now. After all, there are only so many dinosaurs under the ground.

Fronk is chief engineer, fuel-cell research and development, GM fuel-cell lab in Honeoye Falls.

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