Military as Driving Force Behind Fuel Cell Deployment

Chevrolet Colorado ZH2 Fuel Cell, © GM/Jeffrey Sauger

There has been a long tradition of hydrogen and fuel cell use in spaceflight programs. But it is a little-known fact that the U.S. Army, too, has been developing fuel cell devices for multiple applications. Could its efforts translate into a first-mover advantage and give the market the boost it needs? Here’s a look at how “America First” could be a blessing for fuel cells.

One might say that, all in all, it is U.S. President Donald Trump himself who shares some of the blame for the oil price hikes in past months as well as their growing frequency. You could also say it’s about cause and effect. His threating Teheran has done little to calm the waters. On Nov. 4, another round of sanctions will hit Iran: Expect global oil production to drop by 3 million to 4 million barrels a day. Typically, that’s good news for renewables, but the Environmental Protection Agency has been grappling with massive budget cuts imposed by the Trump administration. Unexpected allies in the fight for renewable energy could be the Department of Energy and the armed forces.

U.S. military is world’s biggest oil consumer

The U.S. military is not just the biggest oil consumer in America but the entire world. Together, its departments need more than 350,000 barrels each day. The amount is understandable given that there are about 1.2 million active duty members who operate a huge fleet of air, land and water vehicles and vessels. Thus, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find uses for fuel cells and green hydrogen to raise energy efficiency and cut back on oil supplies. For example, fuel cells have long been an integral component of submarines made in Germany.

In 2010, the U.S. Army equipped an Abrams M1 main battle tank with the technology. Five years later, General Motors started using fuel cells in military vehicles. In 2017, the carmaker showcased a Chevrolet Colorado ZH2 concept study of a military jeep. Northrop Grumman, on the other hand, has been buying fuel cell equipment from Kellstrom Defense for its transport helicopter UH-1, nicknamed Huey.

The benefits have now trickled down to the common soldier, who will have a much easier time carrying around a fuel cell system than a heavy pack of batteries, with a hydrogen cartridge being the only part that needs to be changed. The technology can reduce the weight of electrical equipment, including radio, night vision goggles, IT and weapon systems, by more than 80 percent. The era of rechargeable batteries is slowly coming to an end. A painstakingly long recharge time isn’t their only disadvantage. They also weigh too much and must be disposed of at the end of their lifetime.

Protonex, a subsidiary of Canadian fuel cell manufacturer Ballard Power and a Boeing partner, supplies fuel cell units for military gear, UPS systems and drones. Drones especially are much lighter if they are powered by fuel cells instead of rechargeable batteries, which will result in a higher range. The difference in flight time will also have an impact on civilian use, where large corporations such as Amazon, Google and DHL see potential for logistics operations.

In this context, it should be noted that the U.S. Navy intends to keep its Ion Tiger drone in the air for three days straight. Currently, 48 hours are possible. The collaboration between Protonex and the Navy began in 2006 and could lead to U.S. military orders worth more than USD 150 million over the coming years, according to Ballard. Key advantages of fuel cell vehicles are low noise and pollution levels, which make them much harder to track.

In the end, Trump’s “America First” could prompt a run on fuel cells among military leaders. The departments’ gigantic budget of more than USD 650 billion a year could help move market deployment forward and provide a boost for civilian use down the road. Environmental factors should not be downplayed when the biggest oil consumer in the world rethinks and redrafts its supply strategy. The U.S. military may see this as the perfect opportunity to frame “America First” in a positive light, though all ideas are no more than wargames right now.

Written by Sven Jösting

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