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(Reuters) - General Motors Co said on Friday it will shift its hydrogen fuel cell development program from upstate New York, and consolidate the operation with its global power train engineering headquarters in Pontiac, Michigan.

The move, to be completed by the end of the first quarter of 2013, will shift the operations, including research and product engineering, from Honeoye Falls, south of Rochester, New York, said Charlie Freese, the executive in charge of the U.S. automaker's fuel cell programs.

Fuel cells convert a fuel, typically hydrogen, into electricity, which can then be used to power cars and trucks. They are a minor player in the industry's efforts to find alternatives to gasoline-fueled engines.

However, some see zero-emission fuel cells one day being a viable alternative if costs decrease and efficiency and durability increase.

GM's first hydrogen fuel cell efforts began in 1969, but gained steam in the late 1990s.

Freese believes fuel cell vehicles could be commercialized by 2015 or 2016 if the infrastructure to support the technology is sufficient, and the technology could be cost competitive by 2022. Some companies are trying to beat that timeline, said Freese, who added GM has not announced any programs.

Freese said the industry also needs to cut costs in the fuel cell, including further reducing the use of high-cost precious metal platinum.

And the industry will need to boost the sales of such vehicles after they are introduced to drive down development costs, he said.

"The first generation of these cars won't be profitable," Freese said. "It's going to take two to three generations before that technology cost curve matures to the point that it can be a competitive technology with some of the other alternative power trains."

Work on gasoline- and diesel-powered engines and transmissions is done in Pontiac, so moving the fuel cell program will allow more sharing of knowledge and improved worker efficiency across numerous technology platforms, Freese said.

"The ability to take someone that knows how to do a turbo charger on a diesel engine and apply them to the compressor on a fuel cell, those kinds of things provide a lot of advantages," he said in a telephone interview.

With the lease on the New York facility expiring in the first quarter of next year, GM will be able to reduce structural operating costs, Freese said.

GM has offered to move most of the 220 people employed in New York to Pontiac.

(Reporting by Ben Klayman in Detroit; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

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