General Motors and the U.S. Navy are working on ways to incorporate automotive fuel-cell technology into unmanned underwater vehicles, according to recent Stars and Stripes article.
This is the automaker's second collaborative effort with the military. Last November, GM and the Army signed a contract to build and demonstrate a fuel-cell reconnaissance vehicle for the Army's Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center.
None of GM's brands have a fuel-cell vehicle on the market yet, but the company has been working on the technology for years. In 2008, GM launched a three-year trial by outfitting 100 Chevy Equinox SUVs with hydrogen tanks and a fuel-cell powertrain.
The Toyota Mirai, Honda Clarity and Hyundai Tucson fuel-cell vehicles are on sale today. The biggest challenge to widespread adoption is an underdeveloped infrastructure of hydrogen fueling stations. By the end of 2016, there will be about 50 hydrogen stations in the U.S., most of them in California. Hydrogen fuel cells convert hydrogen efficiently into electricity, resulting in vehicles with greater range and endurance than those powered with batteries. Under the Office of Naval Research's Innovative Naval Prototype program for unmanned underwater vehicles, energy is a core technology in the Navy's goals for vehicles with more than 60 days' endurance.
The Naval Research Laboratory recently concluded an evaluation of a prototype UUV equipped with a GM fuel cell at the heart of the vehicle powertrain. The tests, a key step in the development of an at-sea prototype, were conducted in pools at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Carderock, Maryland.
An unmanned drone could be used for a number of purposes, including research or patrolling waters.
This latest collaboration marks GM's deepening relationship with the military and the automaker's exploration into ways its fuel-cell technology could be used.
The partnership is an important part of the Navy's goal to develop a long endurance, reliable unmanned undersea vehicle, Karen Swider Lyons, head of the alternative-energy division at the Naval Research Laboratory, said during a June 23 conference call. "When you look at what the Navy's trying to do with unmanned undersea vehicles, they're looking for weeks, if not months, of endurance, and therefore, we require a highly reliable system," said Swider Lyons. "Highly reliable systems can take decades to develop and billions of dollars, and we think we've found that with our partnership with General Motors."
Hydrogen fuel-cell technology reduces oil consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. Fuel-cell vehicles operate on hydrogen from wind and biomass stored for later use. Once converted to electricity, water vapor is the only emission. Recharging takes only minutes.
GM's fuel cells are compact and lightweight and have high reliability and performance. Lower cost is achievable through volume production.
"Batteries are important, and everybody likes to pursue the question about: Is it batteries or is it fuel cells?" said Charlie Freese, GM executive director of global fuel-cell activities. "We're very certain the answer is: You need both."
Freese said GM has tested fuel-cell prototype vehicles for more than 3 million miles. GM intends to learn lessons from the underwater drone project that can be applied to future land-based vehicles.