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Hydrogen fuel cell outperforms diesel counterpart

  • Published
  • By Damian Housman
  • Warner Robins Air Logistics Center Public Affairs
An Air Force Materiel Command unit here is tied to a project that could provide warfighters at remote bases with a cleaner, quieter way to power runway lights and other electrically powered devices.

The Air Force Advanced Power Technology Office, or APTO, here held a December demonstration of a hydrogen fuel cell for providing power at remote locations. The hydrogen fuel cell was developed by Battelle. The Columbus, Ohio-based company is a global science and technology enterprise that develops and commercializes technology.
During the demonstration, halogen light units were powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, and also by a current generation light cart using diesel fuel. The diesel generator produced toxic emissions, an odor and considerable noise, along with electric power. The hydrogen fuel cell produced electric power with no emissions, no odor and almost no noise.

According to Jeff Melaragno, Battelle's senior market manager for fuel cell technology, the hydrogen fuel cell is 25 percent more fuel efficient than diesels.

"This means it runs much longer on the same amount of fuel," said Mr. Melaragno.

He explained that fuel is converted to hydrogen by a reformer, and the hydrogen runs the motor (fuel cell) that produces electricity.

The fuel used for the demonstration is S-8, the synthetic fuel used as a substitute for JP-8 jet fuel, which also powers ground devices such as airfield lights. It was synthesized using the Fischer-Tropsch (FT) synthetic fuel process named for two German scientists, Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch, who invented the system prior to World War II.

"If we could get enough FT fuel to the battlefield, we could use the fuel cell now," Mr. Melaragno said. "However, we will have to use JP-8 because FT fuel isn't available in quantity yet, while JP-8 is."

Since the conversion process within the fuel cell results in some sulfur with JP-8, which would damage the cell, further development is required to eliminate the last of the sulfur and put the fuel cell into military use. Mr. Melaragno said he believes that will take about 18 months of further development. S-8 is used for the demonstration because it contains no sulfur.

Mr. Melaragno is not only looking at bare base applications and light carts, but any portable diesel application. Battelle is working with the army to customize the fuel cell for use in the Stryker fighting vehicle, as the auxiliary power unit. That application is about two years from being fielded.

Indeed, the APTO is exploring a number of future applications for the technology. Scott Slyfield, who comes to the office as a contractor from Mandaree Energies Corp., is working toward the future.

"We are looking at additional work for fuel cell technology. We are exploring what can be brought to the warfighter," said Mr. Slyfield. He coordinates demonstration projects such as this to compare diesel and JP-8 powered devices with fuel cells.

"Demonstrations like this give us a better view of how the technology can be used," he continued. "Not only are we comparing apples to apples in what devices are powered, in this case lights, we can show that the fuel cell will supply power 25 percent longer than the conventionally powered cart."

Power for a longer time with the same volume of fuel means less fuel needs to be brought to a remote location. And that means the warfighter has more ability to bring in other vital supplies.

The demonstration was the latest in a series held by the Air Force APTO in its effort to develop ways to make the Air Force less dependent on fossil fuels, especially from non-U.S. sources.