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General Motors, Liebherr-Aerospace Collaborate On Hydrotec Fuel Cell Power Systems

General Motors is teaming up with German-Swiss multinational equipment manufacturer Liebherr-Aerospace to develop a new hydrogen fuel cell power generation system for use in commercial aircraft.

The new system will be partly based on General Motors’ Hydrotec fuel cell technology, and will include GM’s fuel cells, Hydrotec power cube, fuel system, and controls. Meanwhile, construction and testing of the demonstrator system will be handled at a Liebherr-Aerospace specialized laboratory multi-system integration facility in Toulouse, France.

Hydrotec Power Cube

“Aircraft are a great litmus test for the strength and versatility of our Hydrotec fuel cells,” said GM Executive Director, Global Hydrotec, Charlie Freese. “Our technology can address customer needs in a wide range of uses – on land, sea, air or rail, and this collaboration with Liebherr could open up new possibilities for aircraft, transitioning to alternative energy power sources.”

GM’s fuel cell business brings engineering and manufacturing expertise, with high-volume processes that promise to provide economies of scale for the project. Additionally, Liebherr is considered a leading supplier in integrated on-board aircraft systems, with decades of investment in on-board thermal management and power management.

Hydrotec Power Cube

With regard to the technology, hydrogen power is said to offer lower emissions and less noise than conventional aircraft propulsion systems.

“The change from the conventional to a hydrogen technology-based electrical power generation system means major systems modifications on board the aircraft that could result in better, more efficient performance of the plane,” said Managing Director and Chief Technology Officer, Liebherr-Aerospace & Transportation SAS, Francis Carla. “The advantage of GM’s HYDROTEC fuel cell technology is that it has shown promise in extensive automotive and military programs, where it has shown to be reliable from the engineering and manufacturing perspectives.”

As GM Authority covered previously, General Motors is currently pursuing development of a new flying-car taxi service, which could provide quick urban transportation utilizing electric propulsion. However, according to the vice president of GM’s Global Innovation team, Pamela Fletcher, the concept is still roughly a decade away with regard to commercial viability.

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Jonathan Lopez: Jonathan is an automotive journalist based out of Southern California. He loves anything and everything on four wheels.

View Comments (19)

  • I like that gm is investing in hydrogen fuel cells. Its nice to know that "GM’s HYDROTEC fuel cell technology is that it has shown promise in extensive automotive and military programs, where it has shown to be reliable from the engineering and manufacturing perspectives.” But I wonder why they will not put this technology in mainstream cars or trucks but instead push battery power. Refueling hydrogen seems to be a bit quicker than recharging a battery pack. I would think they could at least give the consumer an option of battery pack or fuel cell and see which one sells better if it has already been decided to move away from ICE engines.

    • Because hydrogen fueling stations are very expensive to build. For trains where you only need them in train yards or planes at airports that's not a problem. For personal transportation, you would need the in basically the same places as gas stations.

      • Yes, theflew, but these H₂ fuelling stations are easier to build and operate, methinks, than the to recreate the model of petrol fuelling stations with electrical outlets to charge giant batteries hard wired in cars.

        BEV, or Battery Electric Vehicle, are a dead end in my view, since the energy density (Joule / kg) of the best battery is still far higher than of H₂ plus tank. My opinion.

        A BEV ist a battery powered mobile device. And where do you prefer to charge your battery powered mobile devices, e.g. your mobile phone? At home, and best at night time when you sleep.

        With a BEV, only people with their own independend houses and a place to park their car on their own premises can do that. Who lives in big cities, in an apartment block, can't.

    • I don't know maybe because hydrogen is the most elusive, the lightest element in the universe so it is very hard to handle. Also it has a very low energy density so you have to liquidized aka concentrate to make it work as a fuel and also to prevent leaking. Because it's a single atom, smallest one, it easily leak in regular tanks, requires specific robust multi layer tanks. But the problem is it has extremely low, -423 F, boiling point so to achieve such low temperatures and turn it to liquid requires significant energy as a result of those to store and transport hydrogen is pretty expensive and dangerous business.

      Another way for liquidation is applying pressure. But the high-pressure tanks that needed weigh much more than the hydrogen they can hold. For example in Toyota's hydrogen car Mirai, a full tank contains only 5.7% hydrogen, the rest of the weight being the tank.

      Hydrogen must be made more energy dense to be useful for transportation. Following are three ways to do this. Hydrogen can be compressed, liquefied, or chemically combined. All come with serious difficulties.

      1) Compressed hydrogen

      You need to compress hydrogen under 800 bar to carry enough hydrogen to be practical. A pressure of 800 bars works out to 6 tons per square inch. It is very difficult to contain such pressures safely in a lightweight tank. Catastrophic tank failure releases as much energy as an equal weight of dynamite. A tank made of high strength steel weighs hundred times more than the hydrogen it contains. A truck or an automobile using a steel tank would be impractical as the tank would weigh nearly as much as the vehicle.

      2) Liquid hydrogen

      The advantage of hydrogen liquefaction is that a cryogenic hydrogen tank is much lighter. Hydrogen's physical properties means hydrogen is harder to liquefy than any other gas. There are significant and inevitable energy losses when hydrogen is liquefied, 30% in the best case.
      A tank for cryogenic hydrogen consists of a tank within a tank with a vacuum between the two. The inner tank must be supported without conducting heat from it. This is very difficult to do in a tank designed for a vehicle.

      The liquid hydrogen tank designed for automobile use will loose about 5% of its capacity every day, which is to say that all of it will be gone in 20 days. Losses of this magnitude are acceptable for, say, a taxicab fleet, but unacceptable to most people. So it's not practical for most of the passenger cars and more suitable for scheduled commercial transportation such as semi-truck, buses and also taxi cabs.

      3) Chemically combined hydrogen

      Certain alkali metal hydrides release hydrogen when exposed to water. These metal hydrides hold enough hydrogen to make them useful for transportation. However, 70% of the energy is lost in the creation of the hydrides, making them unacceptable for widespread use.
      Certain metals (platinum, zirconium, lanthanum) can be formed into "sponges" for hydrogen. But the "sponges" can hold only 1% of their weight in hydrogen and they are very expensive.

      As you can see hydrogen has much most problematic than battery electric, the most of the layman people support hydrogen against EVs because the word "fuel" they think its very similar to the gas, their beloved one. So it's better than liberal leftist soft electrons. It's really ridiculous that we politicize even the most non-subjective scientific issues.

      • @1: Compressed hydrogen

        Here in GErmany and probably all over Europe, H₂ is offered at fuelling stations compressed at 700 bar for passenger cars, for heavier cars at 350 bar.

        »
        The basis for hydrogen mobility with passenger cars has been created in Germany: The basic network for 700 bar refuelling will grow to 100 in the coming months. Then more than 6 million motorists will be able to switch to hydrogen without having to take major detours. At six hydrogen stations (see question 07) commercial vehicles can already refuel at 350 bar today. From 2021, hydrogen stations will be set up primarily where demand for commercial vehicles is expected in the short term and where a public filling station would make sense for a growing network of filling stations for passenger cars as well.
        « source: h2.live/en

        In January, the price for 1 kilogram of H₂ at the fuelling stations was 9.26 €.

        @2: Metal hydrides

        The "Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Technology and Advanded Materials" (IFAM) in Dresden, Germany is working on storing H₂ as a "Power Paste" which can be stored and dispensed like your tooth paste. It is a magnesium hydrid with an Ester. It is stable at temperatures up to 250 °C. To produce it, this must be heated up to 600°C, so your it might be relative costly. Methinks that the heat should not be allowed to dissipated in the air, but put to other uses, like district heating or hot water for household uses.

        As you said, it releases H₂ when exposed to water, where half of the amount of H₂ released comes from the water.

        The institute sees the field of application in small vehicles like motorcycles.

        I am fascinated by the easy handling and distribution. It could be sold in small or large cartridges which do not need special outlets like fuelling stations, and for crossing a desert one can take a whole bunch of cartridges with you.

        The energy density of the "power paste" is significantly higher than of a modern lithium ion battery.

        The IFAM institute has an english language page on the "powerpaste" with a link to a white paper on the subject:
        ifam.fraunhofer dot de/en/Profile/Locations/Dresden/HydrogenTechnology dot html

  • Easy... There is no Hydrogen refueling infrastructure, except in very few areas. Hydrogen might be a good solution someday, but today is not that day.

    • Infrastructure is not the problem, nor the significant challenge until cost effective vehicles are ready for production Donavan. CA and NY both have hydrogen refueling stations and there are many in Europe were test fleets are located.

      Hydrogen can be a very good solution for renewable, pollution free driving when the technology is ready, as it's clean, quiet and powerful.

  • That wasn't very kind of me I suppose. And not true, either.

    Fuel cells will have many applications as technology improves. It may not be in individual vehicles for sale to the public, but may one day serve as chargers for BEVs. The possibilities are exciting.

    • The former GM subsidiary Opel, which pioneered hydrogen fuel cell technolgy 2 decades ago (there were also Chevrolet branded cars in the test fleet) offers now a weight and performance comparison beween BEV and FCEV.

      Their new Vivaro mid sized commercial van is no longer co-produced with the Renault Trafic, but with PSA ones, i.e Peugeot and Citroën. This trio is available ICE powered and battery electric.

      They have now presented a FCEV version, which differs from the BEV-Version by 3 main items:
      • added: the fuel cell, which is placed under the hood just on top of the electric motor;
      • added: a mid sized battery (as used in the PHEV versions) placed underneath the seats
      • replaced: the large BEV battery in the vehicles floor by 3 tubes as tank for compressed hydrogen (700 bar)

      plus additional cabling and control electronics.

      It will be interesting to compare the curb weight of the BEV and FCEV versions. Opel and the other Stellantis brands have not published (yet) any numbers in this regard.

      BTW, the battery is plug in recharchable and provides 50 km to drive.

  • Soooo. Fuel cell to battery to electric motor to propeller to power a plane? Seams awful heavy in machines where they make much of it out of carbon fiber to save weight. Can't futurists drop the idea that the 140 year old electric motor design might not be as sci fiish as they think? They do know we can sythesis fuel at 100% carbon netrual right? Or does that go right over their heads like the weight considerations.

    • Only a relatively small battery as buffer is needed, since electricity is being generated on the fly by the fuel cell.

      OTOH, jet fuel (kerosene) is heavier than hydrogen, or put it the other way, the energy density of Hydrogen is higher than that of petroleum derivates.

      An electric motor is more efficient than the ICE engine in our cars and might also be less complicated than one of those in current commercial airplanes.

      Also, maybe that this is initially not intended for intercontinrntal planes, but smaller ones.

      Finally I like to temind readers of the tiny electric helicopter flying in the very thin athmosphere of planet Mars. Electrically powered, of course.

        • Good question! Next question!

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          Actually it is there for scientific research.

          Exploring Mars can tell us a lot about our own planet, which is of the same type as Mars and our moon, and a 4th planet, whose name I forgot.

          After what we have seen at the place where the US mars vehicle landed, we can be sure that there was water. But where did it go? and how? The answer may be very helpful for us on planet Earth.

      • Dude, your missing one important part...... Numbers numbers numbers.... Electric motors range from 60-70% efficient, but to get 90% efficient eltric motors you will need a motor the literal size of the plane door that power output. (Rc plane motors are 30% efficient for reference... Just because that's the size thats appropriate for RC plane performance) jet engines are 50-60% thermally efficient depending on their altitude and speed. The efficiency advantage is on the side of the turbines in this application. They also don't require heavy reinforced pressure tubes with reinforced metal walls to carry the fuel (fuselages are only carrying 8psi and therefore can be made of fiberglassed and plastics) this is a anti gasser lefty pipedream. Good luck!

        • Electric motors are far more than 60-70% efficient sir. Even the 90 kW 1996 EV-1 was over 90%. Most of today's motors are in the mid to high 90's.

          And your jet engine efficiency estimates are way too high.

          • Wake up and do your own research. A TEFC NEMA high efficiency motor, which is 90-92% efficient weight in excess of 300 lbs for a 25-30 HP motor. DC brushless motors aren't even close to those effiencies. My company has hundreds of those and I'm the engineer responsible for their maintenance. We got 3 150hp NEMA 89% efficient Toshiba motors, and they weight in at 800 lbs and are the size of a big block with a supercharger on top. These motors that are used on EV's are at most 70% efficient when cruising, and under 50% for hard acceleration. Teslas ludicrous mode drops their motors efficiency to what I would estimate 20% given their current draw, and that one of the reasons it's a short lived sprint and requires "precooling" as Teslas don't have the radiator to deal with that heat and use the copper windings themselves as a temporary heat sink. This is a similar setup used on power plants who have a 10K HP startup motor that is the same size as a NEMA 500HP high efficiency. Electric motors require large sizes for effiencie. It's simple math, more coil, more energy transfer to the field.

          • Jake,

            NEMA Induction motors are significantly less efficient than permanent magnet synchronous AC motors. PMAC's are typically 85 to over 95% across their operating range. I can't imagine any BEV of any sort using an induction motor due to the mass and efficiency penalty.

            Even taking motor and controller losses into account, a Tesla Model 3 is achieving EV-1 levels of efficiency in a much larger vehicle with a 75-100 KWH battery vs 24 kWH for the GEN II EV-1.

            Needless to say, while challenges exist, the final drive motor is not the major hurdle to jump in applying hydrogen fuel cells to aerospace applications.

        • Ah, Jake, you did reply to me. Sorry for not having noticed this earlier. I was only reading the notification in the mail

          The fact is that an electic motor has far less moving parts, and does not need those many transformations of energy:
          • from chemical or rather molecular binding energy to thermal energy,
          • from thermal energy to longitudinal energy,
          • from longitudinal movement to rotative movement

          which then needs a number of transformations before it can actually move a wheel.

          OK, for an aircraft that may be somewhat simplified by using turbines instead of ICE with pistons.

          Coming back to the savings: these are to a large part in production, just because the electric motor is simpler than an ICE and needs less parts und less work to make it.

          Also, again not pertinent to an aircraft, since there is a 1:1 releationship of motor to propeller, but for a road vehicle one can easier put an electric motor on every wheel and control the torque and spin electronically instead of a complicated mechanic transmission of the rotative energy of the single ICE to more than one axle, and to wheels individually.