General Motors Corp. announcement Tuesday that its first fuel cell commercial application may be a stationary unit rather than in a vehicle should come as no surprise considering some 50% of the suppliers involved in fuel cell development with GM are non-automotive businesses.

“There are between 40 and 60 supplier partners that we’re working with,” says Byron McCormick, director of GM fuel cell research. “Globally we’re working with almost 300 potential suppliers. And there is a message for the automotive supply industry -- about half of those folks are not currently in the automotive supply business. The technologies are different. They’re investing aggressively to bring these materials and these technologies. And so one of the things we’re seeing is other people with other capabilities looking at the automotive industry based on this fuel cell technology.”

The prototype stationary unit, capable of running on gasoline, natural gas or methane, was unveiled alongside a Chevy S-10 pickup with the world’s first gasoline fuel cell processor for fuel cell propulsion, resulting in 50% better fuel economy than a conventional S-10 and a 50% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. “And we would have only trace amounts of other emissions,” says Larry Burns, GM vice president of Research and Development and Planning.

GM plans to make the S-10 available for demonstration drives by year end or early 2002. The S-10 fuel cell generates 25 kW, or about 33 hp. Starting time has been reduced to 3 minutes compared to 15 minutes on previous GM fuel cell gasoline processors. That’s a considerable improvement. But GM isn’t moving up its timeline of large-scale commercialization of fuel cell vehicles by the end of the decade. Affordability remains a major drawback, admits Mr. Burns.

However, the pace might quicken depending on the retail success of GM’s stationary fuel cell activities. “If we can establish market and revenue streams associated with the stationary unit, it allows us to accelerate the rate at which we can develop the (automotive) technology,” Mr. Burns explains.

GM’s stationary fuel cell unit could hit the market by mid decade, about five years before widespread automotive applications are expected. Fuel cell systems for autos are taking longer to develop due to the extreme temperature variations and more stringent safety requirements. By starting with stationary units GM will have a few years to enhance production techniques, cut costs, improve durability and “get customers familiar with the technology so when we’re ready to go with automotive applications it’s going to be something that feels natural,” says Mr. Burns.

The stationary fuel cell technology could be scaled up or down to power an assembly plant or a house.