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Electric fuel-cell cars just decade away?

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TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — By 2010, consumers may be able to buy vehicles powered by electricity from hydrogen fuel cells that would be twice as efficient as today's cars and trucks with far less pollutants, the head of General Motors Corp.'s research said.

GM Vice President for Research and Development Larry Burns said on Thursday that fuel cells were moving closer to the power and flexibility of gasoline engines. He said GM and ExxonMobil had developed a better way to convert gasoline to hydrogen, and that the system was twice as efficient as a modern gas engine.

Other automakers have said the expense of fuel cells and the problems of handling hydrogen would prevent customer uses before the decade's end.

"Our joint progress on gasoline processor technology means that clean, efficient fuel cell-electric vehicles could be in consumers' garages by the end of the decade," Burns said Thursday at the University of Michigan's annual automotive conference.

Fuel cells generate electricity through a reaction of hydrogen and oxygen, with water as the main emission. Most major automakers have bet that fuel cells could replace internal combustion engines over the next several decades.

, providing the clean-air benefits of electric cars without the limited range of battery power.

But fuel cells have several problems that have to be solved before they're ready for a starring role under the hood. One of the biggest problems is finding a way to carry hydrogen as easily as gasoline. Hydrogen is volatile, hard to store and hard to transport.

One answer: Simply convert gasoline to hydrogen.

Burns said GM and ExxonMobil had developed a gas-to-hydrogen converter that put 80 percent of the hydrogen it generated into the fuel cell. With such a converter, Burns said GM could build a fuel cell vehicle that used 40 percent of the energy in gasoline, almost double what a typical car does today in average driving.

But hurdles remain. One problem with fuel cells is that they produce and use water — a difficulty for vehicles used in sub-freezing temperatures. Burns said GM had developed fuel cells that power up in 20 seconds at minus 4 degrees, and reach full power in 60 seconds at minus 22 degrees.

Even if those problems are solved, Burns said it would take a number of years to reduce the cost and size of fuel cell systems to the point where they can compete with internal combustion engines for consumers' attention.

GM and several other automakers have shown off test vehicles powered by fuel cells, but the first production versions won't hit the road for a few years, and even then will likely only be built for commercial use. DaimlerChrysler AG has said it would build fuel-cell powered transit buses by 2002; Burns said GM might have a similar product, but he declined to be more specific.