Our Hydrogen Tanks go Boom! Boom!


Are we looking at the next generation M1 tank powered by a hydrogen fuel cell? Could the army be trying to reduce its carbon bootprint? Absolutely they are and they are already at a stage of advanced development; the artist representation pictured above is set to become a reality sometime soon.

The US army turning green is in fact old news. For years the military has been at the forefront of developing alternative energy to make the assortment of military forces as efficient as possible; this is true of many of the world’s militaries. From fighter jets running on biofuel to soldiers in Afghanistan with solar powered backpacks, one of the biggest challenges has been how to make the ground combat vehicles more eco friendly whilst still putting the fear of god into the enemy.

Since the days of the WWII Blitzkrieg favoured by the Wehrmacht forces, battlefields have become increasingly mechanised. This means that there is a need for massive quantities of fuel, usually diesel. The average US combat trooper uses some 22 gallons of fuel a day, quite a total especially if you are in enemy territory where you have to transport this fuel in. In Afghanistan, the US forces have had to truck this fuel in through sometimes hostile, sometimes friendly Pakistan; the convoys are regularly blocked and regularly attacked.

Pictured above is the proposed next generation main battle tank that will run using hydrogen fuel cell technology being developed by General Motors, a platform that is thought will help solve the problem for an ever expanding electronics requirement on the modern battlefield that the current on-board generator is finding difficult to cope with. Apart from the obvious reduction of reliance on imported oil and gas, a side benefit for the fuel cell electric armoured vehicle (FCEAV) is that the engines are pretty much silent and, thus, as the tank advances, all you may well hear is the sound of twigs snapping and not the cacophony of sound that the current M1 Abrams 1000hp turbine engine produces.

Much of the development is being undertaken by GM at the US Army’s Tank and Automotive Research Development and Engineering Centre or TARDEC. The joint collaboration is with a company that was almost bankrupt just a few short years ago, but is in fact logical as GM is without a doubt the leader in fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) technology. As long ago as 1966, GM created the first fuel cell vehicle and has filed a number of fuel cell patents since 2002.

Perhaps just as significant as the tie-up with TARDEC, GM in conjunction with Honda Motor Co are working to develop the next generation fuel cell system and hydrogen storage technology. It is thought that much of this technology will trickle down to the consumer perhaps as early as 2020, although FCEVs will be on sale in California at least by the end of 2014.

The GM-TARDEC systems are still being tested in the labs and it will be some time until we see the first of the next generation mainline battle tanks, but not so for our next candidate. This one is here already, so feast your eyes on this here bad boy:

The Ugly Duckling aka The Northrop Grumman Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) Image sources: electrovelocity.com, inhabitat.com

Maybe not the most attractive of fighting vehicles. The offering from Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems of the UK was first tested in 2007. The hybrid GCV has been specifically designed to modernise the US army and provide soldiers with a decisive edge against adversaries. It is powered by what is described by BAE as a hybrid electric drive (HED) system, which apparently affords greater force protection and up to 20% greater mobility.

The hybrid GCV is firmly in the planning of the US Army’s Future Combat Systems (FCS) programme that will see the military utilise hybrid tanks as a way of fuelling supply lines faster and putting fewer lives at risk. According to BAE’s website, the HED is “the next logical step for the US Army, and now is the time for soldiers to reap the benefits that hybrid will bring to the battlefield.”

If you have read any of our previous articles on hydrogen fuel cells, you will realise that there are many critics of this technology, but the fact is even if you do not agree, there are significant advantages to FCEVs. The technology is gaining wide acceptance and, dare we even say, momentum. When the first KERS based hybrids came upon us, they were widely criticised. However, the Toyota Prius is currently the number 1 seller for Toyota in California. Unlike pure battery electric vehicles (BEV), both hybrids and FCEVs can be refuelled in minutes and, so, seem attractive, but where is the hydrogen coming from and how is it generated?

If you believe all of the hype that hydrogen is all around us, understand that it needs to be converted into a form that we can use. This can be done using renewables such as solar, wind and biomass, but currently most hydrogen is created by using natural gas. So the claim that the only emission from FCEVs is water vapour is perhaps misleading and needs more scrutiny, and we still have to transport the hydrogen to the fuelling stations, during which it is still prone to interception or blockade. So perhaps there are some flaws to the technology.

Although the cost of hydrogen fuel cells is prohibitive at the moment due to the amount of technology and precious metals that are contained in them, the US Department of Energy, in conjunction with the National Academy of Science, has offered an estimate that by 2030, the cost of an FCEV will be about USD34 000 in comparison to their estimate for a BEV, which is just under USD35 000. Of course critics will tell you that there has to be massive investment in fuel delivery infrastructure for the FCEV to win the day whilst pure BEV can allegedly utilise existing technology.

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