Profile: Larry Burns, Mr. Hydrogen:

No one will kid you that commercially viable, affordable fuel cell vehicles are right around the corner but their ability to act as a future bridge to a more sustainable transportation infrastructure is very much a reality. With the National Hydrogen Association’s annual conference taking place this week in the nation’s capitol, perhaps it’s worth taking a look at one of the movers and shakers in the push to realize that bridge.

Larry Burns is not your typical ecological warrior. After all, he works for one of the largest corporations in the world, in an industry whose products are often fingered by environmentalists as contributing to global climate change and urban smog. Yet Burns, vice president of Research and Development for General Motors, is the visionary largely responsible for helping to transform a company that has been viewed as an environmental villain into a leading advocate for the “hydrogen economy”, the long-sought-after chimera of environmentalists that suddenly seems within our reach. GM, the world’s largest vehicle manufacturer, actually developed a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle back in 1966, long before the other major car companies began to look beyond petroleum. (Fuel cells operate more or less like a battery and run on hydrogen to create electrical – rather than mechanical – energy. Unlike a battery, fuel cells do not need to be recharged. They will produce electric power as long as there is hydrogen fuel and oxygen [from the air] available.) Just recently, GM recently announced the largest single fuel cell transaction with the Dow Chemical Company, the world’s largest chemical manufacturer and one of the largest producers of hydrogen in the world. According to Burns, GM is the first major auto company to truly come to grips with the fact that hydrogen and fuel cells are the right combination to solve not only vexing problems with our status quo transportation systems, but they also provide a unique opportunity to expand the market for automobiles in the developing world. “Only 12 percent of the people in the world own vehicles,” pointed out Burns. “An attractive way to accelerate growth in the developing countries is to build cars that are affordable, safe, compelling and sustainable from an energy and environmental standpoint. GM believes that fuel cell vehicles are key to revitalizing the auto industry while delivering higher value to our customers – and higher margins to GM.” Burns summed it up this way: “We want to completely reinvent automobiles and in doing so reinvent the industry. The only way fuel cell vehicles matter is if they sell in high volumes. The industry sells about 60 million vehicles annually and there are about 700 million vehicles in the world today. So we need to reach very high levels of sales to make a real difference in reducing petroleum consumption and addressing environmental challenges.” GM today is devoting the single biggest portion of its R&D budget to fuel cell technology. It has set goals of making fuel cell vehicles commercially viable by 2010 and being the first car company to have a million fuel cell vehicles on the road. Still, Burns was clear that GM has a long way to go. The target price for power from a fuel cell is $50 per kilowatt. At present, the cost of generating electricity from a fuel cell hovers around $500 per kilowatt. Burns freely acknowledges that generating hydrogen from renewable resources is key to capturing the greatest environmental value from hydrogen. “But even if we burn fossil fuels to create hydrogen, we still see environmental benefits,” he said. Burns is also quite excited about the notion of consumers creating their own hydrogen using an in-home appliance such as a natural gas reformer or an electrolyzer, which uses electricity – perhaps produced by rooftop solar panels – to generate hydrogen from water. “Our research shows that consumers love the idea of refueling at home,” he added. A significant advantage is that fuel cells enable revolutionary designs like GM’s Hy-wire concept. Hy-wire contains the fuel cell and other vehicle systems within a “skateboard” chassis that is topped by a body that can be easily interchanged. Thus, the skateboard could provide the same basic architecture for many types of vehicles – sedans, trucks, and sport utilities – keeping development and manufacturing costs down, Burns said. He added that a vehicle like Hy-wire could also be upgraded through software rather than by hardware changes. An important advantage of a fuel cell over its internal-combustion-engine counterpart is simplicity. Internal combustion engines are complicated. In fact, a fuel cell propulsion system will likely have only a tenth of the moving parts required in today’s typical car engines. “If you could get better acceleration, safety, styling and versatility with a fuel cell car and it is as affordable as or even more affordable than today’s cars, wouldn’t you want to buy one?” asked Burns. “The fuel cell vehicles we offer will be compelling and will provide great driving enjoyment, safety, styling and functionality. They will also be as affordable and feature the same range as today’s traditional cars,” Burns continued. “It is our view that if we build a fuel cell car that offers these benefits, the customers will come.” About the author… Peter Asmus of San Francisco, California has been covering national energy issues for 15 years. He is author of Reaping The Wind and Reinventing Electric Utilities, both published by Island Press.
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