11-03-30 Fuel Cell Use within the US Military

Fuel Cell Use within the US Military

Date publishedFormat
30 Mar 2011PDF (324 kb)

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Military activity has been headline news around the world for some weeks now, with the major search-and-rescue operations taking place in New Zealand and Japan and the NATO-backed military action in North Africa. For decades, the military has had a keen interest in the potential application of fuel cells in its operations and I’m struck by how wide-ranging this interest is. The question that occurs to me is to what extent development or application of fuel cell technology by the military occurs independently of civilian markets.

In addressing this question, it is logical to focus on the world’s strongest and most technologically advanced armed force. The US Department of Defense (DoD) in fact took a conscious decision in the 1990s to move away from technology developed from scratch by the defence sector, to an increased reliance on commercially-driven innovations. The use of off-the-shelf systems was initially pursued in software and electronics but the concept has been applied across the board. It allows the DoD the advantage of choice as a consumer and a degree of flexibility it would not have if it were locked into in-house technology that had taken years of research and millions of dollars to develop. Even if goods are ultimately customised for military use, the platforms are standard commercial products, subject to the competitive stimuli and price controls of the open market.

I think many of the latest fuel cell demonstration projects reflect the ongoing effort by the US military to find the right balance between ‘off-the-shelf’ and bespoke equipment. This is encapsulated in the US Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) contract for a fuel cell-based auxiliary power unit (APU), which will see a commercial fuel cell product integrated with a reformer to run on JP-8, the primary military jet fuel. I imagine the versatility of this set-up would easily lend itself to use with a partially synthetic or biomass-derived fuel, should this be implemented by the army in the future.

TARDEC has identified a need for greater auxiliary power in military vehicles, as increasingly complex tactical systems have significantly pushed up power consumption. Improvements in batteries have helped, but the need to recharge is still a limiting factor; batteries, whether supplying auxiliary or propulsive power, only get you so far. These tactical systems must operate reliably and indefinitely during combat so it makes sense to look at using fuel cells here - especially as the basic technology is already on the market.

TARDEC and other US military research bodies have also been heavily invested in demonstrations of fuel cell vehicles on military bases, and these have made use of cooperative agreements to gain access to platforms from automotive manufacturers such as Hyundai Kia and fuelling expertise from the likes of Chevron. Inter-agency cooperation has been prominent in many of the US Armed Forces FCV demonstrations, with some of these, such as the Hawaii Hydrogen Initiative, seeing a combined military and civilian rollout.

This suggests that, while adoption of FCVs by the military may occur ahead of the commercial sector, it won’t be due to any unique, exclusive advances in technology. Rather it will result from the known benefits of well-defined fleets within enclosed infrastructures, allowing the sort of constrained deployments in which fuelling infrastructure can be rolled out in tandem with vehicles. That said, FCV deployment has the impetus of the Pentagon’s desire to lessen dependence on imported oil - foreshadowing concerns around energy security in the civilian market that have been strengthened in recent weeks by the political unrest in the Middle East and North Africa.

Although the US Department of Defense was quick to identify the advantages of fuel cells and was already backing major demonstrations in the 1990s, I think it has no desire to be the sole driving force behind the development and implementation of fuel cell technology in any one area, and would rather position itself to benefit from commercial product development. Hence the ongoing military investment in fuel cells could be seen to reflect confidence in their civilian future.

Marge Ryan     Market Analyst

margeryan@fuelcelltoday.com

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