If you look around at the evolving state of the automotive industry, it’s easy to see that electric motors are quickly gaining traction. Personal electric vehicles are becoming more and more popular while electric commercial vehicles are being touted as the future of delivery and transportation services. However, the majority of these futuristic vehicles are limited by the speed at which they charge. Simply put, even the most advanced and efficient superchargers can’t match the speed of sticking a fuel hose in your car and filling up in just a few minutes. Swapping battery packs is a potential solution, but can be cumbersome, wasteful, and expensive. It’s for this reason that electric vehicles just don’t fit in the fast-paced, logistically intensive world of the military. But what if they could be fueled faster? Enter the hydrogen fuel cell.
Just because a vehicle is driven by an electric motor does not necessarily mean it has to be limited by the time it takes to charge its battery. What if the electric motor could be powered by electricity generated onboard the vehicle? And what if the fuel for generating this electricity could be pumped aboard the vehicle at the same rate as regular gasoline or diesel? This is one of the major benefits of the hydrogen fuel cell compared to traditional electric batteries.
Hydrogen-powered vehicles are not a new concept. Auto makers like General Motors, Hyundai, Toyota, and Honda have all developed hydrogen cars that get better mileage over battery-powered vehicles and comparable mileage to more efficient gas-powered vehicles. Toyota and heavy machinery manufacturer Yanmar are working on a hydrogen fuel cell boat while Airbus announced its intention of putting a hydrogen-powered commercial airliner in service by 2035. Hydrogen-powered electric generators have also been brought to market. The incredible benefit of the chemical reaction that powers these machines is that the only byproduct is water.
The greatest change that hydrogen could bring to the military is that it would bring very little change. The modern US military already runs on a single fuel concept to simplify logistics as dictated by both US and NATO policy. In reality, the military runs on three types of jet fuel and one diesel fuel. Although having tanks and trucks run on the same fuel as jets and helicopters simplifies logistics, the single fuel concept is incredibly wasteful both financially and environmentally.
Naturally, a major concern with adopting hydrogen is safety. The gas has become synonymous with the infamous Hindenburg disaster. However, the reality of modern hydrogen tanks and fuel cells is that they are actually safer than gasoline in many respects. When punctured, hydrogen tanks do not explode. Moreover, unlike gasoline or diesel which pools on the ground, escaped hydrogen vents upward and into the atmosphere. During WWI, even with far more primitive technology, the US Army Balloon Corps suffered only one hydrogen-related fatality.
So where are all of the hydrogen-powered military vehicles? Well, in some ways, they’re already here. In 2017, the Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command conducted a study on hydrogen fuel cell technology and its military applications. The study included elite units like the 75th Ranger Regiment and three Special Forces Groups testing and evaluating the hydrogen-powered Chevrolet Colorado ZH2 truck. Not only was the hydrogen truck significantly quieter than traditional military vehicles, but it also had a reduced thermal signature. The soldiers who took part in the study praised the ZH2. “We can get closer into enemy territory undetected, making our vehicle weapons and call for support more lethal,” said one soldier anonymously quoted in the study’s findings.
In 2021, The US Naval Research Laboratory demonstrated a multi-day endurance flight test on the Hybrid Tiger electric UAV. The lightweight aircraft is powered by both battery and hydrogen fuel cell electricity. During the test, the Hybrid Tiger flew through a complete 24-hour period, its longest flight yet. “The flight was effectively a performance test in worst-case conditions: temperatures falling below zero degrees Celsius, winds gusting to 20 knots, and relatively little solar energy as we approached the solar solstice Dec. 21,” said Dr. Richard Stroman, Ph.D., and mechanical engineer with NRL. “Despite all of that, Hybrid Tiger performed well.”
The development of hydrogen fuel cells in military applications could result in significant advancements in the civilian world and vice versa. In the constant search for an alternative to fossil fuels, the solution most likely to be adopted en masse is the one that causes the least disruption. Whether it’s filling up at the gas station on a roadtrip or filling up at a FARP in a combat zone, the ability of hydrogen to replicate the traditional fuels that the world is so used to is a major advantage in its adoption.