Fuel cells have the potential to dramatically change how the military carries out its missions, and how soldiers operate in the field. With the largest, most technologically advanced military in the world, the U.S. armed services use an immense amount of fuel and electricity, and any use of alternative energy would have positive effects on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, fuel cells are of particular interest to the military not for their environmental savings, but because of unique technical features that can aid soldiers in the field.

Fuel Cells Enlist in Armed Forces

Elizabeth Delmont | Fuel Cells 2000


The military has power needs that are quite different from commercial or residential applications. In a combat setting stealth is of the utmost importance, since noise and heat signatures can be used to locate military personnel. Fuel cells have no moving parts and are extremely quiet with a low noise signature, making them more difficult to detect by remote infrared scanning. Fuel cells can operate close to body temperature, as opposed to batteries which give off significant heat, reducing their heat signature as well. Due to their scalability and power output capabilities, fuel cells have been demonstrated and tested for use in numerous military applications. 
 
Following a groundbreaking in early August, the U.S. Army is constructing a new Department of Defense's Ground System Power and Energy Laboratory (GSPEL), a one-of-a-kind research and testing laboratory complex. Eight different labs will be housed in the 30,000-square-foot facility and they are being designed as the cornerstone for the Army's next generation of power and energy initiatives. The facility will provide scientists and researchers with the ability to integrate hybrid-electric and fuel cell technologies into advanced military vehicles. The Army, with the world’s largest vehicle fleet, has been working on fuel cell auxiliary power units (APUs) for vehicles, to reduce the amount of gas and diesel they use to power on board equipment and electronics. This laboratory will help further development and demonstration of APUs and fuel cells for propulsion.
 
The Army has also been testing fuel cell powered Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGVs) and they aren’t the only branch interested in the technology. The Air Force has been working with private companies to develop fuel cell powered Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), both for surveillance and operational missions. The Army and Marine Corps are funding projects for portable soldier power and the Department of Defense has been deploying fuel cells to provide electricity for barracks, camp operations and officer’s quarters since the early 1990s.   The Navy is also researching fuel cell-powered submarines. 
 
 
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are remote-controlled or self-piloted aircraft that can be used to collect surveillance data or deploy weapons, all without putting soldiers in harm’s way. UAVs have been used since the 1950’s but technologic advances have made UAVs an invaluable resource for modern warfare. Fuel cell-powered UAVs have the potential to further improve capabilities because they can fly higher and longer than current battery powered UAVs. Batteries’ weight and bulk make the units less maneuverable and reduces the payload. 
 
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Protonex Technology Corporation is working closely with the military to design fuel cells for UAVs. The company’s UAVs have increased flight endurance, are smaller, more flexible, and more cost effective than alternatives, allowing for more persistent surveillance, improved search and rescue capabilities, chemical and biological monitoring. 
 
FigThis past March, Protonex was awarded a $3.3 million dollar contract from the Department of Defense (DoD) to continue its work on developing fuel cells for UAVs. The company will receive a $2.2 million base award, with a $1.1 million option, for working with partner AeroVironment on its PUMA-AE plane. In May, Protonex also received a $265,000 dollar award from the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) to continue their efforts to miniaturize fuel cells already used in the PUMA project, this time for AeroVironment’s Raven UAV. The Raven is a battle tested, light weight UAV designed for rapid deployment, high mobility and mass production. The goal is to create a UAV that has longer flight duration to extend mission capabilities. 
 
Unmanned on the Ground
Fuel cell power systems have also proved advantageous for unmanned vehicles on land, or UGVs. UGVs are small, remote controlled vehicles that can gather surveillance information while keeping soldiers safe. To be useful, UGVs need to have a long enough range to get to mission critical areas, and they need to be able to power the necessary on-board electronics to gather data.
 
Protonex is also integrating their fuel cells into UGVs and has teamed up with Foster-Miller, Inc. to work on a project funded by the Defense Logistic Agency (DLA) and managed by the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Crane Division. Protonex designed a fuel cell power system for Foster-Miller’s Talon robotic UGV and in April, 2009, the Talon demonstrated three times the range, extending to 45 km, and twice the energy density, as an advanced battery powered system. The fuel cells provide 200 watts of continuous power and met all the peak demands of the Talon. 
 
In May 2009, Adaptive Materials demonstrated a real world test of their iRobot scout UGV. The iRobot held a constant speed for 3.1 mph for 40 miles. The UGV was operational for 12 hours, running on a 150 watt fuel cell system, with a peak output of 600 watts. The fuel cell system powered all onboard cameras and computers, using three 8 oz canisters of commercially available propane gas. In a comparison test, a battery powered UGV provided 40 minutes of similar operation. The fuel cell not only dramatically increased range and mission time, but Adaptive Materials was able to achieve these improvements at a fraction of the cost. To put the test into perspective, the iRobot covered the same distance as between the GreenZone in Baghdad to Fallujah. In August, the company completed a successful demonstration of its UGV at the Naval Air Weapons Station, China Lake. 
 
 
Portable Power
Soldiers carry anywhere from 50 to 100 pounds in their packs, depending on mission and closeness to camp. This does not include advanced electronics needed for missions, and their battery sources. Batteries are heavy, and need to be replaced on a daily basis, not to mention recycled or safely disposed of. Batteries also drain, reducing the output and requiring frequent recharging. Fuel cells deliver constant power and can last longer before refueling, which is a fast and easy process, reducing precious time. During Operation Iraqi Freedom battery supplies barely met demand, so the military is extremely interested in lighter and longer-lasting fuel cells.
 
The Army Communications-Electronic Command, the Marine’s Expeditionary Program, and scientists from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have been working together to develop a 100 watt fuel cell system that could recharge batteries and power small electronics. Battelle has developed a fuel processor and a PEM fuel cell that is the size of a half gallon of ice cream. The fuel cell would run on methanol fuel processed into hydrogen. The system would allow soldiers to carry only one battery, recharging it from the fuel cell output.
 
In July 2009, the Army awarded Protonex a $345,000 dollar contract to continue its research into advanced fuel cell portable power systems for soldiers. Protonex and its partner UltraCell will integrate and test power systems using UltraCell’s XX25 and XX55 fuel cell systems in the Protonex Soldier Power Manager and Battlefield Power Manager. The two companies will also develop standards for portable power plug-and-play. Since both companies use a methanol/water mixed fuel, they will work together to develop a universal fuel mix. By standardizing packaging, components, and fuel, it will be easier for the military to procure fuel cell products from both companies, and know the systems will work together.
 
Silent Watch/Silent Camp
Fuel cell power systems can be used in silent watch and silent camp operations.  As the name suggests, silent watch is when surveillance activities are undertaken in a stealth manner, and silent camp is when the camp goes dark and quiet.  It is difficult for a tank or armored vehicle to operate in stealth mode, since the engine must be turned on to power onboard computers, cameras and other electronics necessary for information-gathering.  At camp, noisy generators supply electricity, so moving to stealth mode requires the use of batteries.  However, since batteries give off a high heat signature, the camp would still be detectable with infrared cameras.
 
In 2006, the Energy Branch at the Army Engineering Research and Development Center, Construction Engineering Research Laboratory (ERDC-CERL) hosted an industry forum to determine if civilian focused companies might already have commercial technologies that could be used for military applications. For silent watch, the idea of a Stryker vehicle with an APU came out of this forum. While the Stryker is running, some power is siphoned off to run an onboard electrolyzer that generates hydrogen fuel. Then the vehicle can be shut off, and run in silent mode, where the fuel cell powers onboard electronics. For silent camp operations, a fuel cell power system would be used as a back up to standard generators. The fuel cell also allows for generator maintenance to occur without disrupting camp activities.
 
Under the Sea
Fuel cell-powered submarines have the potential to be a safer alternative to nuclear power subs, with the obvious benefits in that fuel cells are not radio-active, and do not require extensive decommissioning at the end of life. Like nuclear power subs, fuel cells are virtually silent, a key factor in modern day sub building.
 
The German government has taken the lead on developing operational fuel cell powered submarines. Working in this area since 1995, Howaldtswenke-Deutsche Werft (HDW) has created two fuel cell powered subs, the U212 and the U214. Both models run on nine 34 kW Siemens PEM air-independent fuel cell power system. The subs have increased diving depth, underwater endurance, and overall efficiency.  These are fully equipped and operations submarines that can spend up to three weeks under water. The German Navy has ordered four U212s for their fleet. In February of 2000 the Greek Navy ordered four U214s which will be in production soon, and the Italian Navy has ordered two U212s as well.
 
This month, the Polish Navy announced they have contracted with Sweden-based Morphic Energy to deliver fuel cell technology for submarines. Morphic’s design is also an air-independent fuel cell system. The technology will be delivered for testing in submarines, but it is not clear when the subs will be operational.
 
The American Office of Naval Research has been involved in fuel cell research for both submarines and surface ships, although there are no definitive plans to roll out fuel cell-powered crafts. The Navy is interested in fuel cell systems that can operate in all necessary environments, including: surface, air, underwater, and combat. The Navy already has a diesel infrastructure in place, and is using technologies that obtain hydrogen from diesel.
 
Fuel cells are important to the future of the Navy because they can increase efficiency while reducing cost. Currently, the engine on a surface ship is located in a single spot, and if the engine is knocked out, the ship is rendered inoperable. Fuel cells can be scaled down and are modular allowing for their placement throughout the ship. This allows for greater design flexibility, but also increases survivability in combat. 
 
All four branches of the U.S military are actively working on various fuel cell projects and demonstrations with the hopes that the technology will help our soldiers and equipment continue to be all they can be.


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