General Motors' fuel-cell work may be in danger

General Motors, a leader in development of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, may have to curtail its cutting-edge work unless it gets another $50 million to $70 million from the government, GM's outgoing research chief warns.

GM just emerged from a painful bankruptcy restructuring in which it cut 1,100 dealers; shed Pontiac, Hummer and Saturn; and lost thousands more jobs. Yet, through it all, GM maintained its hydrogen research program pretty much intact, even though fuel-cell vehicles are still years away from going on sale.

"The program has not slowed down at all," says Larry Burns, GM's retiring vice president of research. "The issue is, going forward, do we have sufficient money to operate at that rate?"

Trying to seek federal research dollars, directly or indirectly, comes at a sensitive time for GM. As of last month, the automaker had either accepted or been approved for $49.4 billion in government bailout funds, Automotive News reported. It has not had direct grants from the government for its hydrogen program.

Now, General Motors is in talks with "government and private entities" about grants or partnerships in hydrogen vehicle research, confirms GM spokesman Alan Adler.

Under Burns, GM has become known for its fuel-cell work. "They have done so much original, groundbreaking work in this area," says Catherine Dunwoody, executive director of the California Fuel Cell Partnership.

Burns, 58, says he decided to retire to give the new GM fresh research leadership under Alan Taub, 54, who, he says, will continue with the same direction. Besides creating fuel-cell prototypes, GM is conducting a field test of 115 Chevrolet Equinox hydrogen SUVs.

The real-world test "shows how far the technology has come," says Patrick Serfass of the National Hydrogen Association.

Hydrogen is a zero-emission fuel that emits only water vapor through the tailpipe. But fuel cells are costly, few fueling stations exist, and mass acceptance is considered years away.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu cut $100 million from the $168 million hydrogen research budget to focus instead on battery electric cars, which show more short-term promise. There are moves in Congress to restore hydrogen funding.

Burns says GM must continue hydrogen funding to stay ahead of Japanese, South Korean and German automakers that have their own programs. "The design we're working on right now would just knock your socks off," he says. But to maintain leadership, "It has put us in a position where we are going to have to rely on the federal government."