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Fuel Cells: Space Race Technology Make Way Into Cars



Space race, man on moon

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Many of us are old enough to remember when President John F. Kennedy boldly declared that America was going to safely land a man on the moon. That was in the early 1960s, and America did indeed make a moon landing, beating the Soviet Union to the punch.

The space program to land a man on earth’s satellite is considered a critically important achievement that showcased the country’s dominance in science and technology. It was an enormously expensive undertaking that benefited humanity in a number of ways that we now take for granted, giving rise to a slew of technologies that make our lives easier.

Fuel cell technology is one of the byproducts of the program. In order to reach the moon, engineers developed a working hydrogen fuel cell system that efficiently converted hydrogen into electricity.

GM logo, US flag

General Motors Gets Involved

As mandated by Congress, all the technology developed by NASA became available for use by American private industry, and according to Suburban Chrysler of Garden City, a local Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram dealer in Garden City, MI, while Chrysler expressed an interest, General Motors was one of the first companies to embrace hydrogen fuel cell technology, seeing it as an alternative to the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine.

Floyd Wyczalek, GM’s fuel cell project manager, recalls the initiative, which involved a 250 person team:

“We had three shifts of people on this project starting in January 1966 and we finishing just 10 months later.” Wyczalek said.

GM electrovan fcv concept

The Electrovan

The GM Electrovan, a vehicle that used both super-cooled liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen for fuel, was the result of the company’s fuel cell project. It had two large tanks (one for the hydrogen and another for the oxygen) and contained over 500 feet of piping throughout the rear of the vehicle.

The 5 KW fuel cell system was able to accelerate the GM Electrovan to speeds of over 65 mph and offered a range of up to 120 miles. However, it was so bulky and took up so much room that the normally 6-seat van could barely accommodate two passengers.

Concerns for safety meant that the Electrovan was only used on GM property. Interestingly, the idea from the beginning was to use a Corvair as the basis for the first hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, which would have been called Electrovair, but that idea never came to fruition.

GM and Honda fuel cell partnership

An Industry Leader Today

Today, GM has invested more than $2.5 billion in hydrogen fuel cell technology and, with Honda as a partner, is one of the top patent leaders in the industry. The two companies are interested in the technology for both civilian and military use.

One of the biggest issues facing the widespread adoption of hydrogen-powered vehicles is the limited availability of hydrogen as a fuel, or more precisely, the lack of a fueling infrastructure. Presently, there are only a few hydrogen “filling stations” in North America, and all of them are located in Southern California.

New Petersen Museum, GM Electrovan

Where’s the Electrovan?

For those wondering what happened to the 1967 Electrovan, it was stored in a Pontiac, Michigan, warehouse following the end of the project. It was rediscovered 31 years later in 2001 and, when not at home in the GM Heritage Center, can be found on display in several museums around the United States. Only one was ever built, so it’s a very rare vehicle that was ahead of its time.

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