In an unusual partnership that combines oil industry refining expertise with General Motors Corp.'s fuel cell technology, GM and ExxonMobil Corp. announced Aug. 10 they have developed a new highly efficient gasoline fuel processor for fuel cell vehicles.

The on-board processor turns ordinary gasoline into a high-quality stream of hydrogen that powers a fuel cell, enabling them to be "gassed up" at the corner station like a conventional car or truck.

The development promises to be a big breakthrough because it could eliminate two of the biggest current problems for the technology: storing hydrogen onboard and lack of a hydrogen-refueling infrastructure.

Lawrence D. Burns, GM vice president for Research & Development and Planning, promises a vehicle demonstration using the technology within 18 months, paving the way for the possible production of hundreds of thousands of cost-efficient fuel-cell vehicles by the end of the decade.

Among the innovations ExxonMobil helped deliver is a system for recovering and reusing the heat and water generated by the reforming process and using it to power the device and continue the reaction. By the end of this year, GM says it will demonstrate an integrated system with the processor and a GM fuel stack producing enough electricity to power a vehicle.