Four years after General Motors and Honda signed a partnership agreement in which they would work together to research and design affordable hydrogen fuel cell and hydrogen storage systems for use in future production vehicles, the two automakers have announced a new joint manufacturing venture that will bring those researched fuel cell systems to commercial reality.
Called Fuel Cell System Manufacturing, LLC, the new manufacturing company will establish its own hydrogen fuel cell production line inside General Motor’s battery manufacturing facility in Brownstown, Michigan, with commercial mass-production of hydrogen fuel cell stacks due to begin some time around 2020.
The perennial Achilles heel of hydrogen fuel cell cars, hydrogen fuel cell stacks (where oxygen and hydrogen combine to produce water, heat and electricity) have traditionally been very expensive and complex to produce. This is because they not only require delicate assembly (often by hand) but also use large amounts of rarer, more expensive elements (like Platinum) as the catalyst that encourages the chemical reduction of O² inside the fuel cell so it can combine with H² to become H²O.
Because of this, hydrogen fuel cells have to date been very expensive to produce. Although there’s been a great improvement in the past twenty years in energy density, power density and cost per kilowatt of hydrogen fuel cell stacks (for example, the $50,000 hydrogen fuel cell stack in the 2017 Toyota Mirai Fuel Cell Sedan costs about one twentieth of the fuel cell stack in Toyota’s previous generation hydrogen fuel cell car) the cost of producing hydrogen fuel cell stacks is still prohibitively expensive for any automaker looking to make a profit on the technology.
By working together however, Honda and GM hope that they can reach that profitability, using what they’ve learned thus far to produce more affordable fuel cell stacks that not only use less expensive materials but can be more easily mass produced. And as any production expert can tell you, as soon as something is produced in significant enough volumes, the price-per-unit drops dramatically.
“Over the past three years, engineers from Honda and GM have been working as one team with each company providing know-how from its unique expertise to create a compact and low-cost next-gen fuel cell system,” said Toshiaki Mikoshiba, chief operating officer of the North American Region for Honda Motor Co., Ltd. and president of Honda North America, Inc. in an official statement accompanying the announcement. “This foundation of outstanding teamwork will now take us to the stage of joint mass production of a fuel cell system that will help each company create new value for our customers in fuel cell vehicles of the future.”
Together the two automakers have a total of 2,200 patents pertaining to hydrogen fuel cell technology, ranking GM first and Honda third in the number of hydrogen fuel cell patents filed between 2002 and 2015. While this may come as a shock to readers who are unaware of GM’s involvement in hydrogen fuel cell technology (GM does not make a production hydrogen fuel cell car at the present moment in time) its hydrogen fuel cell program is decades old. Importantly too, it has worked alongside the U.S. military for a number of years to develop, test and build hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, resulting in the ZH2, a hydrogen-powered military-spec pickup truck currently in service with the U.S. Army. Honda meanwhile, recently began U.S. sales of its Honda Clarity fuel cell sedan, the company’s first production fuel cell vehicle.
Combined, the two companies have each ponied up $42.5 million each, giving Fuel Cell System Manufacturing, LLC a total investment of $85 million to be spent between now and the planned 2020 start of hydrogen fuel cell production. As part of that investment, GM says a total of just under 100 new jobs will be created at the Brownstone facility.
$85 million may seem like a lot of money (it is), but it’s worth noting too that GM’s $42.5 million investment in the new joint venture is less than the $65 million it invested into the Brownstone facility back in 2014 as part of preparations for the second-generation Chevrolet Volt range-extended electric car, which in turn was part of a larger $449 million investment in future electric vehicle technology.
It’s also far less than the $500 million invested last year in ride-sharing platform Lyft, which GM has been working alongside to explore the future of the automotive industry and on-demand mobility.
It also pails into insignificance when compared to the $10 billion investment announced earlier this month by thirteen different companies including BMW, Daimler and Toyota as part of an attempt to accelerate the deployment of hydrogen filling infrastructure and the production of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles around the world.
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