DETROIT – Field tests of the first planned commercial product to emerge from General Motors Corp.’s fuel cell research and development were so successful that the auto maker is considering another round of evaluations.

In early 2002, GM placed a fuel cell for several months on a California cellular phone tower structure to provide backup power. Several other companies participated in the test, including Nextel Communications Inc. and hydrogen storage manufacturer Quantum Technologies Worldwide Inc.

GM is planning to test more stationary fuel cells.

“That was a great demonstration of our stack technology,” Gary Stotler, manager-fuel cell applications and architecture, tells Ward’s. “It’s certainly something that we would do again. What we’re working on is fuel-cell distributed-generation units that could have a lot of different applications – and one of the key ones is backup power. Whether it’s a cell tower, a hospital or computers or whatever, they have pretty much the same requirements for uninterrupted power.”

GM wants to have hundreds of thousands of fuel-cell vehicles on the road by 2010. But its strategy to accelerate fuel cell technology commercialization for autos calls for first focusing on stationary applications. That’s because some distributed-generation opportunities aren’t as cost-sensitive as automotive applications.

GM gained important knowledge from the fuel-cell test on the cellular tower that will be applied to the vehicle environment, Stotler says. “You start to get a handle on durability. It obviously has to run for 150,000 miles (241,395 km) in vehicles. You also start to get a handle on how it behaves being started up and shut down frequently.”

The fuel cell test unit, which cranked out a relatively modest 25 kW, was called into duty during the field tests when the conventional power source failed. Because the cellular tower’s power demand was fixed, GM didn’t get a lot of details about transient performance.

“We are working on a number of other distributed-generation applications that potentially do give you (more transient-behavior insight),” says Stotler.

A Nextel spokeswoman declines to comment on the field test results. “We do not discuss any technology trials or tests as a matter of policy.”