October 8 is Hydrogen Fuel Cell Day: A look back 50 years at a pioneering prototype

The Electrovan, a fuel cell-powered version of the GMC Handivan built by General Motors Research Laboratories. ― AFP pic
The Electrovan, a fuel cell-powered version of the GMC Handivan built by General Motors Research Laboratories. ― AFP pic

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NEW YORK, Oct 7 ― Considering it's called the fuel of the future and that tomorrow will mark only the second ever annual Hydrogen Fuel Cell Day, it may come as a surprise to discover that the first hydrogen fuel cell powered car actually hit the road way back in October 1966.

The vehicle in question, the Electrovan, was built by General Motors and the project was overseen by Floyd Wyczalek with a little help from a 200-person team.

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

The technology was a spin-off from the Apollo Space Program and the concept car's completion faced a tough deadline. It had to be ready to greet the world's media world's at the Progress of Power press conference that October.

Based on a standard production GMC Handivan, the goal was to build a hydrogen-fuelled vehicle that could match a typical delivery van in terms of performance ― i.e., acceleration, top speed and range.

The test vehicle could hit 70mph, and travel 150 miles before its 45 gallon tanks needed replenishing. However acceleration was an issue ― 0-60mph took 30 seconds and this was due in part to the sheer mass of the fuel cell, oxygen, hydrogen and electrolytes that powered it. Together they bought the van's weight up to 7,100 ― more than twice that of a production Handivan.

The highly inflammable nature of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen also meant that testing was confined to GM's own road network or, initially in laboratory situations. “Fuel cell durability was performed over a period of several months in a test cell,” Wyczalek said. “Driving acceleration and top speed tests were conducted on a chassis dynamometer.”

Still the project moved forward quickly. “We had one running demo for the Progress of Power press conference in October that year,” said Wyczalek. However, the Electovan didn't live much longer.

As well as poor accleration, huge mass and potential fire hazards, the platinum used in the fuel cell if sold could have bought an entire fleet of gasoline powered vans outright.

But while the Electrovan died, the idea of a hydrogen powered car is still very much alive. GM has amassed 3.1 million real-world miles of testing for example. Toyota and Hyundai have hydrogen vehicles in their current model line ups and the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell sedan is scheduled to go on sale in the US before the end of 2016.

“Honda believes that hydrogen can play a critical role in addressing global climate change and accelerating progress toward a more sustainable, ultra low-carbon mobility future,” said Steve Center, vice president of the Environmental Business Development Office at American Honda Motor Co, Inc. ― AFP-Relaxnews

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