The road to the sparkling green hydrogen economy of the future has been a bumpy one, but the U.S. hydrogen and fuel cell industry is beginning to assume a critical role in energy supply for the Department of Defense. That relationship could be the key factor that helps sustain the new technology until it gains more traction in the civilian marketplace.
DoD hearts hydrogen and fuel cells
Hydrogen fuel cells provide a number of tactical advantages for military operations. In vehicles and aircraft, they combine range and power with stealth. They create no airborne emissions; they run quietly; and they operate at lower temperatures, giving away less of a thermal footprint than diesel or other combustible fuels.
Similar factors make hydrogen fuel cells attractive for stationary power supply.
In addition, hydrogen can be produced on site from water, by deploying solar or wind energy, so hydrogen fuel cells could reduce or eliminate costly and dangerous fuel convoys for forward operating bases.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers provides a hydrogen and fuel cell fact sheet that summarizes the benefits:
“Unlike conventional combustion engines, fuel cells produce power via an electro-chemical reaction which does not rely on mechanical parts. They are more efficient, clean and produce significantly less noise than generators. Fuel cells operate on hydrogen, natural gas, methanol, and a variety of other fuels.”
The problem is condensing all of the necessary components into a durable, lightweight, efficient, compact and financially viable package.
Take a look back to 1966, when General Motors introduced the first hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle prototype, the Electrovan, and you can see how far things have come in the last 50 years:
In 2011, the global fuel cell leader Ballard produced a hydrogen and fuel cell report for the Department of Defense. Ballard identified 11 distinct applications and concluded that fuel cell technology was not yet “competitive, valuable and appealing” across seven of them.
The four applications that fit the bill were distributed power generation, backup power, unmanned vehicles, and non-tactical equipment such as forklifts and other vehicles used in materials handling.
A hydrogen fuel cell monster truck for DoD
A lot has happened since 2011.
In one of the more recent developments, last October the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center made a huge splash with the unveiling of its muscular ZH2 hydrogen fuel cell EV, produced in collaboration with General Motors.
Billed as an “energy-efficient tactical vehicle … that could one day save lives on the battlefield,” the ZH2 was based on the Chevrolet Colorado and built with off-the-shelf parts.
The availability of a commercial supply chain made a huge difference.
From concept to delivery, the ZH2 only took about 12 months to pull together. That’s just a couple of months longer than the 10 months GM logged to get the Electrovan up and running.
According to GM, the Electrovan represented the first technology transfer of fuel cells from the 1962 NASA Moonshot challenge. It involved a 200-person team filling three shifts beginning in January 1966, to meet the goal of getting a demonstration vehicle ready for an October press conference.
Fuel cells and unmanned drones
DoD has also been fitting out unmanned drones with hydrogen fuel cells.
The Naval Research Lab began supporting R&D for hydrogen fuel cell drones in 2005, and by 2009 it produced a model dubbed the Ion Tiger.
Here’s NRL enthusing over the advantages:
“Electric UAVs have the additional feature of being nearly undetectable from the ground. Due to the high energy in the fuel cell system onboard the Ion Tiger, it is now possible to do long endurance missions with an electric UAV, thus allowing a larger cruise range and reducing the number of daily launches and landings.”
As reported by the drone industry publication SuasNews.com, a new iteration of the Ion Tiger flew for the first time last month with a custom fuel cell system built in-house by NRL, including a custom micro-controller and air compressor.
The new system is more lightweight and compact than conventional fuel cell technology. And as SuasNews.com reported, the decision to build customer components in-house resulted in cost savings for the development of scalable prototypes.
Meanwhile, the Energy Department launched a major new initiative to commercialize technology for producing renewable hydrogen with solar power.
The startup truck company Nikola is poised to take advantage of that development, with plans for a North American network of hydrogen fuel stations integrated with renewable hydrogen production.