Spring Hill pioneers hydrogen fuel cell technology for GM – News – The Daily Herald

Spring Hill pioneers hydrogen fuel cell technology for GM - News - The Daily Herald

General Motors is serious about reducing emissions — inside and outside of its manufacturing plants.

The company wants to develop and make cars with zero emissions, CEO Mary Barra told workers in Spring Hill when she visited in February. The goal will be accomplished with electric cars, she said, noting that the idea is far from a pipe dream.

As workers make engines and vehicles, they’re also experimenting with new technology inside the plant here that’s cleaner and more efficient than fossil fuels. The process turns hydrogen into electricity to fuel forklifts, tuggers and dollies, which move material and equipment during production.

For the past year, GM has been piloting a program in which its mobile forklifts are powered by fuel cell batteries instead of acid lead batteries. The switch has led to a 38% percent decrease in fleet maintenance costs and a five-year increase in average battery life for each forklift, spokesman William Bradley said.

“Hydrogen fuel cells are an important part of GM’s electrification strategy and our commitment to a world with zero emissions,” Bradley said. “GM has over 50 years of development with fuel cells. Our fuel cell pilot at Spring Hill is another example of General Motors using technologies that will drive a future that is all-electric.

“In Spring Hill, the use of fuel cell technology has greatly expanded charge-time for each forklift and has been a safer source of energy for plant employees. Best of all, the only emission is water vapor,” he added.

Spring Hill’s propulsion workers make three engines. The first is a 6.2-litre, V8 powerhouse that propels the Chevrolet Tahoe, GMC Yukon, GMC Yukon XL and Cadillac Escalade. The second is an all-new 2LT engine that powers the 2020 GMC Acadia, 2020 Cadillac XT5 and 2020 Chevy Blazer. The third is 2.7 LT for the 2019 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 and GMC Sierra Elevation.

Gary Hawkins, the Global Supply Chain Floor Lead in the propulsion side of the plant, said the hydrogen technology debuted when Spring Hill with the launch of 2.0-LT engines and the Chevrolet and GMC 2.7.

“Hydrogen fuel cells convert hydrogen gas to electricity,” Hawkins said. “We power all of our tuggers and forklifts for the new engine with the new technology.

The plant has 27 tuggers and 12 forklifts wired for hydrogen fuel cells. GM purchased the fuel cells from Plug Power, which bills itself as an industry leader in fuel cell power solutions that increase productivity, lower operating costs and reduce carbon footprints. The mobile equipment came from Crown and Hyster.

“You get most of your new toys when new products come in,” said Hawkins, noting the fuel cells arrived in December 2017 and the equipment by March 2018. “The life of a fuel cell is twice as long as the lead-acid battery. The cost of hydrogen gas is equal to the cost of electric power.”

Even though the technology was new, it was “love at first sight,” Hawkins said. He said flexibility was the biggest advantage. Lead-powered batteries have limited capacity.

“With the lead batteries, you had to change batteries virtually every shift,” Hawkins said. “You had a huge investment in labor, just in changing batteries. There’s also an investment in space. You have to have a dedicated space to charge it.”

Tuggers and forklifts hold 5,000 pounds of hydrogen. A tugger fills a minute or two faster, said Louie Vargo, a team leader who oversees over material receiving.

“The convenience is appreciated,” Vargo said. “You only have to charge once a shift. You don’t have to continually charge. All of the guys seem to like it. I have not heard a lot of complaints.”

Hawkins said he was concerned early on about hydrogen’s volatility. He discovered it was the lightest molecule on the planet.

“When it escapes, it travels at the speed of sound and is gone before you ever know it,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about electrocution like with acid-powered, electrically charged batteries.”

Hawkins said the GM corporate office in Detroit has been interested in Spring Hill’s results. Everyone in the company thinks it’s the right direction, he concluded, but a conversion nationwide will take time.

“We went through a long process of evaluating the fleet as it ran here; we did quite a bit of reporting,” Hawkins said. “The direction for the company is to go to the hydrogen fuel cells. It will be a long process to get there in other plants. It takes some infrastructure. You have to put in a dispensing system.

“This a huge facility, but we don’t have a lot of people delivering materials. There is not as much mobile activity here. There are plants with five times more equipment, where they will need to make a much bigger investment by putting in a hydrogen plant, where they would take liquid hydrogen and covert it to gas on site.”

Being a part of history has its benefits, Hawkins said.

“We feel like we’re part of something big,” he said, “and helping meet the company’s objective of eliminating emissions.”

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