General Motors Co. reaffirms its commitment to hydrogen fuel-cell technology today in Washington, unveiling a significantly smaller, less-costly second-generation system and appealing to legislators for financial help as the auto maker prepares to enter the commercialization stage.

GM says the new system is 220 lbs. (110 kg) lighter and employs half the precious metals used in its current fuel-cell system, which recently completed 1 million miles (1.6 million km) of real-world testing in a fleet of 100 Chevy Equinox prototypes. The latest iteration could be ready for market by 2015.

“We’re still in the pre-development phase of what is basically a 4-year product program,” says Charlie Freese, executive director-GM Fuel Cell Activities.

“Now the cost is starting to escalate, because we’re bringing in the (assembly) plants, the suppliers; we’re building more prototypes,” Freese tells Ward’s during a telephone interview from GM’s office in Washington, where he spent the day detailing the second-generation system to lawmakers and military officials.

Freese says GM is confident it can achieve the automotive-application demands for the system, but would like a firmer commitment from the U.S. government regarding infrastructure investment and financial incentives to consumers.

Freese points to Germany, where in recent weeks a consortium of government and industrial companies have announced plans for 1,000 hydrogen filling stations by 2015. A group of 13 oil and gas companies in Japan previously made a similar commitment.

So far in the U.S., the boldest plan has been set forward by California, where work is under way to develop a hydrogen highway, bringing together stakeholders from some 200 energy, automotive and technology companies.

The goal established in 2004 was to build an infrastructure of 150 to 200 filling stations every 20 miles (32 km) along the state’s major highways. But to date, only about 24 stations have been installed, mostly around Los Angeles. The rollout has fallen behind, crippled by years of fiscal problems.

Freese says the federal government needs to bring more to the table, perhaps through funding in the energy plan now under debate by Congress, or auto makers such as GM face a “Valley of Death.”

“We’ve got to have cooperation from government,” he says, reiterating the risk auto makers assume by rolling out costly first-generation technology that promises very little payback until the second- or third-generation arrives.

“If the infrastructure is not there when these (hydrogen vehicles) come out, the (effort) will fail because people will not have a place to fuel them,” Freese says. “But it can be done. The technology exists.”

In New York, GM joined with Royal Dutch Shell plc and the U.S. Department of Energy in 2008 to open three hydrogen filling stations that support the auto maker’s Project Driveway demonstration with the Equinox fleet. GM and Shell also operate a demonstration filling station in Washington.

Altogether, GM says it has invested $1.5 billion in fuel-cell technology research.

Meanwhile, the auto maker unveils in Washington a production-intent fuel-cell powertrain that can be squeezed under the hood in about the same space as a 4-cyl. engine. It uses the auto maker’s fifth-generation fuel-cell stack and also costs significantly less.

GM does not divulge the cost of the fuel-cell powertrain.

Freese says data from the Equinox fleet, combined with ongoing laboratory research, helped propel GM to the smaller fuel-cell system.

“If you go through, system by system, we found a lot of parts we could take out, improve durability and lower cost,” he says.

For example, the injector system on the Equinox fell-cell unit uses seven injectors and weighs roughly 10 lbs. (4.5 kg), while the latest generation uses one injector and its weight can be measured in grams.

The previous compressor GM used to move air through the fuel cell took up a volume of some 9L, and the new one takes up 5L.

On the cost front, Freese cites a reduction in the use of platinum, a precious metal that functions as a catalyst to break hydrogen down into electricity. The old system used 3 oz. (80 g), compared with the new system, which uses 1.1 0z (30 g). By 2015, Freese expects to use less than 0.4 oz. (10 g).

“We’ll take the amount platinum used in a fuel cell down to the level we see today in the catalysts of some internal-combustion engines,” he says.

In addition to lawmakers, GM invited U.S. military officials to view the new fuel-cell system. Freese says the military previously has shown great interest in fuel-cell technology and could play a major role in its future commercialization.

jamend@wardsauto.com