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  • Interview: Chris Colquitt, Project Manager Chevrolet Colorado ZH2 Fuel Cell Demonstrator

Interview: Chris Colquitt, Project Manager Chevrolet Colorado ZH2 Fuel Cell Demonstrator

Happy Coincidence

Gary Witzenburg
Jun 2, 2017
Photographers: Courtesy of GM
Being born and raised in Honeoye Falls, New York, a suburb of Rochester, proved to be a happy coincidence for Chris Colquitt, since that was where General Motors established its fuel cell R&D facility in 1999. “GM’s fuel cell research lab was in the town where I grew up,” he says with a grin. “The first time I walked through the door, they had an early test vehicle in the lobby, and one of the engineers walked me through it. He said they were working on this technology that converts hydrogen into electricity, that you can power an electric vehicle with it, and the only emission is water. I was 18 at the time and thought, ‘How cool is that?’ It was an incredible eye-opening experience. It blew me away. I was able to get in and do three summer internships there during college, and I thought, ‘If there was ever a way I could do this longer-term, sign me up.’ So here I am after 17 years still doing it. And I just love it.”
As a kid, Chris liked math and science, reading car magazines, and taking things apart and figuring out how to put them back together. He attended Monroe Community College and the State University of New York at Buffalo to earn a degree in chemical engineering, then joined GM's fuel cell effort full-time. “I loved the concept of this technology and thought, ‘Wow, what an incredible opportunity to do something so cool.’”
Photo 2/10   |   Interview Chris Colquitt
His first job was testing fuel cell stacks for performance and durability. Then he moved to Washington D.C. in 2004 as a field service engineer for the Opel Zafira-based HydroGen3 fuel cell fleet. In 2007, he moved to the New York metro area to help launch Project Driveway, the largest market test of fuel cell technology to date, and work as a field service engineer, and then later a driver relationship manager, for New York–based Equinox Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles. Then in 2010, he moved with his wife, Naomi, and a newborn daughter to Hawaii to set up a service facility and support a demonstration of 16 Equinox FCEVs with the Department of Defense at military bases there. Two more children arrived before they relocated to Michigan to serve as ZH2 Project Manager when the Hawaii demonstration program ended in 2015.
Truck Trend: Were you there for this program's beginning?
Chis Colquitt: The relationship between GM and the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) has been going on for probably a decade. In the initial part of the collaboration, we built them a pickup truck with a previous-generation fuel cell. Then they used some our Chevrolet Equinox fuel cell vehicles at West Point, Camp Pendleton, and some other bases. Then came my Hawaii assignment with those 16 Equinoxes. The next logical next step was an off-road vehicle, and I joined this program about the time that the agreement was signed in September 2015.
Photo 3/10   |   Interview Chris Colquitt Engine Bay
TT: Why the ZH2?
CC: First, it’s important to note that we did not design this vehicle for the military. There is no military contract for this vehicle. This is just a demonstrator for them to test. It is the military evaluating a commercial-intent design to see whether its benefits and capabilities are worth pursuing for potential applications. We have a much quicker product development cycle than traditional defense contractors, and the fact that we went from agreement-signing to vehicle build completion in less than a year is really attractive to the military.
TT: What are a fuel cell's advantages for military use?
CC: Very importantly, a fuel cell is quiet, it can generate exportable electric power, and it makes only pure water out of the tailpipe. And our Colorado ZR2 is a fantastic platform with terrific off-road capabilities. So combining those two things into one vehicle allowed us to take those benefits of the fuel cell and give it at least as good, and in many ways better, off-road capability compared to the Humvee that's out there today.
TT: Compared to a Humvee, it's also small, light, and easy to transport. Does it have potential private and commercial applications as well?
CC: We’re not actively marketing it right now, but you can imagine all kinds of potential uses for a vehicle like this—firefighters, border patrol, utility companies, outdoor enthusiasts who want to go hunting, camping, or fishing, any number of uses—in large part because of its capability to generate electricity.
Photo 4/10   |   Interview Chris Colquitt Engine
TT: What was the toughest challenge of this program?
CC: Integration was a big challenge. The fuel cell that was the most suitable to use for this application was the Gen Zero that came out of that Equinox program. It's big and heavy compared to the Gen Two that we have in the pipeline for 2020 production, but we have put 3,000,000 miles on it, it's tried and true, we know how it operates, and we know it's longevity. So the biggest challenge was where to put all the components—the fuel cell, the hydrogen tanks, a hybrid battery, the radiators. As with any vehicle, we had to balance form and function to find where all those the components have to go to make it work, yet how to package them so the studio can make it look good. There was no space in front for the radiators, for example, so we needed to put them up behind the cab. And I think our studio did a fantastic job of putting them up there with the fastback look and grill mesh over their intakes.
TT: What about the challenge of hydrogen refueling?
CC: For this application, the Army will be bringing its own fuel for their evaluations. They are exploring reforming JP8, the standard fuel used around the globe for most military vehicles, to extract hydrogen out of it with portable equipment that they can set down almost anywhere. They can also use local resources wherever they are. The beauty of hydrogen is that it is all around us, the most abundant element in the universe, and there are a lot of different feedstocks from which it can come. Anywhere you have existing hydrocarbon products—gasoline, diesel, propane—you can obtain hydrogen. You can make hydrogen in the field from any number of renewables, and anywhere you have renewable electricity, you can split water to get hydrogen. And in fleet applications, the vehicles would refuel at home base. Hydrogen stores indefinitely and is relatively easily transportable, so a lot of pieces to the puzzle are already there. We will be working to connect those dots and looking at some new and interesting ways of managing energy that are very feasible with our existing infrastructure.

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