The Car and Truck Fleet and Leasing Management Magazine

Can Fuel Cell Vehicles Work Reliably in Subzero Temperatures?

December 14, 2004

ALBANY, NY — Fuel cells work by producing electricity from hydrogen, with water as a byproduct, but until recently, the cold-weather performance of fuel cells – whose delicate membranes can be damaged if water in the cells turns to ice - was a work in progress, according to an article in the New York Times on December 4. Most test programs have been in California. But now carmakers are getting serious about testing hydrogen cars in states where winters can be hard, and that means they have to work reliably in subzero temperatures. Both Honda and General Motors are developing their own fuel cells, and each says it has made breakthroughs in getting water out of the membranes - where it tends to remain when the car is turned off - before it can freeze. Still, nobody is talking about opening showrooms in Alaska. A Honda spokesman, says the operating range of the 2005 Honda FCX fuel-cell car begins at minus-4 degrees Fahrenheit. Tim Vail, director of business development for G.M.´s Fuel Cell Group, says its goal is the same, though it has had success with extreme temperatures only in the laboratory. "We have to be able to start a very cold car not once or twice, but 2,000 times," he said. "We know the dynamics of the freeze-start problem, and we´re confident we can overcome it." Both carmakers are set to experience the big chill in New York State. Honda got a jump on G.M. with a ceremony last month near the Capitol attended by Gov. George E. Pataki. The Japanese carmaker is leasing a pair of its latest FCXs to the state for two years of use around Albany. It is also operating a compact hydrogen refueling station in nearby Latham, at the headquarters of Plug Power, a fuel-cell company. GM has announced an ambitious cold-state tryout schedule with tests in New York; Maryland; Washington, D.C.; and Michigan. In the first phase of an $88 million program partly financed by the federal Department of Energy and lasting until 2007, it is testing six HydroGen3 Opel Zafira minivans in the Washington area. Another is being delivered to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Maryland. Thirteen fuel-cell SUVs based on GM´s Theta compact-car platform will be deployed in the New York area as part of the second phase of the program, from 2007 to 2009. GM is also teaming up with Shell Hydrogen to place four refueling "service hubs" around the country, plus a fifth that would be mounted on a mobile platform. A $2 million Shell station is already open and dispensing hydrogen in Washington.
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