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GM powers world's largest fuel cell operation

Automaker and Dow set out to prove the viability of hydrogen fuel cells for a large industrial power system.

When corporate and U.S. government dignitaries pulled the switch on Feb. 10 to start up the world''s largest fuel cell operation in Freeport, TX, it may have symbolized the advent of the new hydrogen economy. The milestone points to a growing interest on the part of business in using fuel cells to power factories, buildings, and automobiles.

"These type of [advances] will transform the marketplace," declared U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham. "The fact that such a facility exists demonstrates the rapid advances being made in polymer fuel cells."

The General Motors Corp. (GM; Detroit) fuel cell at Dow''s (Midland, MI) largest chemical plant will generate 75 kW of electricity annually. Dow and GM plan ultimately to install up to 400 fuel cells to produce 35 mW of power annually, enough juice for 25,000 average-size U.S. homes, but only 2% of the Freeport, TX facility''s electricity needs. Dow and GM say they intend to prove the viability of hydrogen fuel cells for a large industrial power system.

"Today is about pushing the envelope of technology and science to revolutionize how we live as a society," said Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who attended the ceremony. "Who is to say that a generation from now we won''t live in hydrogen-powered homes and drive in hydrogen-powered vehicles?"

The move enables Dow to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and create electricity that is competitive with its other energy supplies. For GM, the venture serves as a launching pad in the company''s efforts to commercialize its hydrogen fuel cell technology by generating electricity from the hydrogen created as a coproduct at the Dow plant. This marks the first time a carmaker has sold fuel cells to produce electricity and heat for buildings and manufacturing.

"The pathway of getting an affordable fuel cell vehicle in your driveway sometime in the next decade runs right through Texas," said Larry Burns, GM''s VP of research, development, and planning. "What Dow is doing will directly impact the date when the hydrogen economy will become a reality." Dow and GM are members of the Green Power Market Development Group, a partnership of the World Resources Institute and major U.S. corporations dedicated to building markets for green power.

The fuel cell technology in use at the Texas plant converts hydrogen, a coproduct of chemical manufacturing, to electricity. Hydrogen for most other fuel cells comes from natural gas, a commodity that is currently in short supply.

"This is a significant milestone from a business, technology, and environmental perspective," said Theo Walthie, Business Group president, Dow hydrocarbons and energy and ethylene oxide/ethylene glycol. "It is an important step that will make us less dependent on fossil fuels and help usher in a more sustainable future."

The project is expected to drive technological progress for fuel cell technology, particularly for automotive, portable, and stationary power systems. Despite being in the embryonic state, fuel cells are considered a huge potential market for plastics. The components holding the most promise for plastics, experts say, are bipolar plates, end plates, plate assemblies, manifolds, and peripheral system components used in fuel cell stacks. Bipolar plates can be fabricated from thermoplastic or thermoset resins with electrically conductive fillers, and have elastomeric seals pressed in place, overmolded, or dispensed onto them for plate/seal assemblies.

"We are pleased that GM and Dow are taking these steps to accelerate the wide-scale adoption of fuel cells," said David Lane, sales leader of Gore Fuel Cell Technologies'' (Elkton, MD) fuel cell division. "Any increase in fuel cell utilization should indirectly increase the demand for components made of plastic."

Greg Valero [email protected]

Contact information

Dow Chemical Co.     www.dow.com
General Motors Corp.    www.gm.com
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