General Motors has demonstrated the world's first drivable fuel cell vehicle that extracts hydrogen from gasoline to produce electricity. The Chevrolet S-10 fuel cell pickup demonstrator is equipped with a fuel processor that reforms low-sulphur gasoline onboard by a series of chemical reactions.

The fuel is mixed with air and water, and then passed over a series of catalysts that break apart - or "crack" - the hydrogen from the carbon. The resulting stream of hydrogen is sent to the fuel cell stack, where it is combined with oxygen from the air to produce electricity.

"This vehicle and the reforming technology in it move us closer to a hydrogen economy," said Larry Burns, GM's Vice President of Research and Development, and Planning. "This is a drivable lab that is helping us to learn to reform fuels for fuel cells to power cars, homes and businesses. A lot of people said we couldn't use gasoline to power a fuel cell system. Well, we did it."

GM claims that when linked with a fuel cell stack, the reformer technology in the vehicle could achieve up to 40 percent overall energy efficiency, which is a 50 percent improvement over a conventional internal combustion engine.

With a reformer fuel cell, the S-10 pickup could approach 40 mpg says GM. Carbon dioxide emissions would be cut by up to 50 percent if the gasoline was reformed onboard and greatly reduced if the reformer were placed at the gas station. All regulated emissions would be nearly eliminated, except for trace amounts of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons. There are no oxides of nitrogen.

According to Burns, there will be a number of sources for creating hydrogen and the competition will help spur the use of fuel cells.

"You can reform gasoline onboard or at the gas station to produce hydrogen or you can create it at your home or business," Burns explained. "You can reform natural gas at your home or you can electrolyse water. Your home or office could become an alternative to a gas station in the future.

"In most cases, you already have natural gas, water and electricity coming into your home or place of business. To create hydrogen, all that is missing is a natural gas reformer or an electrolyser. Bottom line, the transition will happen faster because there will be so many competing ways to refuel without replacing the existing infrastructure."

"Just as the auto companies are competing on vehicle technology, we believe existing energy providers - oil companies, natural gas companies and electric utilities - as well as new start up energy companies, will compete to provide the fuel for fuel cell vehicles.

"For this reason, gasoline remains a very viable alternative, especially given the existing fuel distribution infrastructure," Burns said. "The infrastructure isn't going to go away. That asset base is simply too big to just disappear as the hydrogen economy comes about. I believe the petroleum companies will play an active role in developing the hydrogen economy. Gasoline is an efficient way to distribute hydrogen, whether the reformer is on the vehicle or in the pump."

During the next year, GM engineers will put the vehicle through rigorous testing to more clearly determine such things as range, efficiency, emissions and fuel-reforming characteristics. Burns remains confident about finding solutions to issues such as cost, hydrogen storage and supplying fuel to these fuel cell vehicles.

"I feel very good about where we are at this point in the fuel cell race," Burns said. "We have leadership positions in stack technology, and vehicle systems and controls. We've made great progress on the fundamentals of fuel reforming and electrolyser technology. I'm confident we will come up with an optimal storage system soon. By the end of this decade, you can expect to see affordable, profitable fuel cell vehicles on the road."