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Update on Honda/GM fuel cell partnership; “It’s about cost reduction”

In July 2013, General Motors and Honda announced a long-term, definitive master agreement to co-develop next-generation fuel cell system and hydrogen storage technologies, aiming for the 2020 time frame. (Earlier post.) At the SAE 2014 Hybrid & Electric Vehicle Technologies Symposium, Mark Mathias, Director, Fuel Cell R&D for GM, provided an update on the collaboration, as well as a brief dive into the technical drivers behind the ongoing automotive efforts on fuel cell propulsion related to the scaling properties of batteries and fuel cells.

The GM/Honda partnership is about cost reduction, Mathias said. “We have vehicles now that work and can be durable, it’s really now about making a business out of the technology. Obviously it involves both the vehicle and the infrastructure and the hydrogen supply, so there are a lot of elements to this.

Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles are currently the most promising 300+-mile range, quick refill, petroleum/emissions-free option. If you want all of those elements, this is the best option we see. We don’t see Li-ion, Li-air getting us to this point.

—Mark Mathias

Mathias, who has worked on materials R&D for both batteries and fuel cells, spent a bit of time talking about the difference in the different way the two technologies scale with energy.

You need about 100 kWh at the wheel to drive about 300 miles. If you want the 100 kWh with a battery, the only way to do it is to add more battery. In a fuel cell system, even if you don't drive a single mile, you need the fuel cell system and the battery, and then to get range you put on hydrogen—this is analogous to what we do with the internal combustion engine today.

Those scaling factors dictate the way the energy density turns out for the two systems.

—Mark Mathias

Energy density and scaling of fuel cell and battery systems. Top row: Gravimetric and volumetric energy and range (required energy). Bottom row: System mass vs. vehicle range.

Battery and fuel cell system scale very differently with range; batteries favor low range, fuel cells favor high, Mathias said.

Source: Mathias, SAE HEVT 2014; Wagner et al. (2010). Click to enlarge.

GM and Honda. GM and Honda have cross-licensed their intellectual property and know-how as part of the partnership deal. “This is a great business deal because there is no question we ask them they can’t answer and vice versa,” said Mathias. Honda plans to go more broadly to market in the 2015 time frame with a fuel cell vehicle; GM has yet to announce plans to go to market.

We are working on fuel cell conversion and hydrogen storage technology; multiple generations, our current focus is 2020, but the intent will be to go beyond that. The big thing is we want to use common component system design to achieve economies of scale.

—Mark Mathias

Mathias noted that Honda and GM had taken different approaches; in the FCX Clarity, Honda packages the stack (with a vertical flow) between the passengers (earlier post) as opposed to under the hood.

All of this is on the table with regard to what we do in 2020...many of the things we are doing is the same. Physics is physics.

—Mark Mathias

System components for a fuel cell vehicle. Click to enlarge.

Stack materials, designs and processes are the key cost reduction areas; about 45% of the cost of the fuel cell system is in the stack. Major priorities for cost reduction are the electrodes (i.e., the cost of the Pt catalyst); bipolar plates, and membranes. Those three elements constitute roughly 80% of the stack cost.

All the OEMs over the last decade that are serious about this business own the design of the cell. The plate designs, integrating these materials, we don’t necessarily make membranes and catalysts, but it was going too slow the other way when we had one guy trying to provide MEAs [membrane electrode assembly] to everybody, it was just going way too slow. The OEMS realized that this is where the meat and potatoes of this thing is, you need to focus on that and get it aligned with your system because the interactions are extreme. So what we do is buy fundamental materials and integrate them into an MEA.

—Mark Mathias

In terms of platinum reduction, Mathias noted that there are some lower-cost platinum alloys that have exhibited targeted activity at the beginning of life—but that durability remains an issue to be solved. Durability challenges remain for all the materials with which they have worked, except for pure platinum nanoparticles.

One needs to learn how to make this stuff stable. There is work at the material level and the system level to get that done.

—Mark Mathias

Also at the SAE event, engineers from Hyundai and Toyota gave talks on their fuel cell vehicles coming to market in the next few years.


  • Frederick T. Wagner, Balasubramanian Lakshmanan, and Mark F. Mathias (2010) “Electrochemistry and the Future of the Automobile,” The Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters 1 (14), 2204-2219 doi: 10.1021/jz100553m



they should better partnership with a H2 distributor...


A JV with two + partners with deep pockets is a good way to accelerate development of extended range FCEVs.

The same could be done to accelerate development of future extended range BEVs with 3-3-3 (2015-2016), 4-4-4 (2018-2019)and 5-5-5 (2020-2021) battery packs. Tesla, BYD, BMW, VW and Mercedes + 2 or 3 major battery manufacturers could certainly get it done. Small and mid-size BEVs with improved batteries could be a cleaner solution.

Larger vehicles such as our huge 4 x 4 , buses, cargo trucks, locomotives etc could benefit from future FCs.


Fuel cell vehicles might find a place in heavy business fleet use, offsetting costs by re-fueling daily at a central location.


They should talk about the hydrogen infrastructure instead of the fuelcell cars. The unknow is how much will that hydrogen gonna cost per kilo. The remaining research should be directed toward providing cheap plentiful hydrogen gas at stations. We already know that fuelcell cars and suvs are good and efficient and long lasting. I won't buy an efficient reliable fuelcell car if the hydrogen is selled at more than 3 dollar per kilo compressed at 10 000 psi. If car manufacturers don't devise a way to produce hydrogen by water electrolysis at the point of sale cheaply then I won't buy either. These car manufacturer chaps did gave us a costly polluting gasoline infrastructure , they won't get me a second time been caught by a nice car but a costly polluting fuel infrastructure. My problem with my gas dodge is high price for the fuel and I notice that the fault is from dodge because they are the first that decided that my car need a lot of costly gasoline. Gasoline providers are just exploiters but dodge is responsible.

These crazy American car manufacturers are responsible of their demise because long time ago they just had low mpg cars and trucks at 80% of the market but higher mpg Japanese captured 40% of the market and now usa cars jus got 40% of the market and even lower then that abroad.


Harvey, I'm curious why you keep referring to the 5-5-5 batteries on a 2020-2021 timeframe.

The 5x battery goal was set by DOE in November 2012. The DOE's time frame target is the end of 2017.

Have there been any announcements that reset this target to 2020 or 2021?

If your own (not unreasonable) expectation is a 5x battery by 2021, you could refer to it as a 5-5-9 battery. Or maybe 5-5-8+1 battery. Not as catchy, I know. But at least people would know that you're talking about your own estimate, rather than the US Department of Energy's.


5-5-5 batteries may be a strong possibility at the Lab level by end of 2018 but it will take another 3+ years to be mass produced and installed in mass produced vehicles.


That's a valid point.


Looking at the graphs linked in the article, I think the FC guy is rather pessimistic about Battery packs. There is plenty of research that implies a real-world factor of two improvement in KWhr/Kg and KWHr/litre over the next 5 years. Pure economies of scale will also likely see a factor two improvement in cost in 5 years. Unless the price of oil plummets over the next 5 years BEV's will have a factor of 3 advantage in fuel costs over ICE's and FC's.

Given the much simpler design of BEV my guess is that the world market will be a couple of million BEV's per year by the time FC cars make their serious debut. FC's will need to find their own definitive niche in order to get toe-hold against ICE's, PHEV's and BEV's. It looks tough to me.

I think FC's will be more advantageous for large vehicles with fixed routes where the refilling station can be integrated into the work flow.

Roger Pham

Both FCV and PEV will have their own niche. FCV is for those who prefer green energy yet do not want to have to plug in their vehicles daily. PEV is for those who prefer green energy and are afraid of Hydrogen (the Hindenburg syndrome!), yet don't mind plugging in their vehicle regularly. Soon, H2 will have lower cost per mile than gasoline, while the cost of FCV will come down to be on par with ICEV and HEV, and FCV will hit the mainstream. ICEV will remain for those who are afraid of new technologies or those who do not want to take risks.

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