Fuel Cells to Keep Soldiers in the Fields

Soldiers assigned to remote field missions need an extended power source for electric equipment, and the military is always looking for technology improvements to meet the needs of field work. The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory has contracted with power source manufacturer Protonex Technology for US$ 2.6 million to develop Ngen Hydrogen-Air, the company’s PEM fuel-cell power generator with a chemical hydride hydrogen storage system.

Southborough, Massachusetts July 27, 2004 [SolarAccess.com] “This system has the potential of reducing costs, both financial and environmental, as well as lessening the load a soldier must carry into the field,” H. David Ramm, Millennium Cell President and CEO, said. Millennium Cell is a subcontractor for the project, and supplies a hydrogen-on-demand fuel system for the cells by generating hydrogen from sodium borohydride, a derivative of borax. When sodium borohydride is dissolved in water and passed through the catalyst chamber in the system, the chemical releases the hydrogen necessary to power the fuel cell. While this current design uses a chemical reaction to create hydrogen, remote fuel cells units could also run off hydrogen sourced through other means, including renewable energy technologies like solar photovoltaics (PV). The army has recently been working with the private sector to research and design thin-flim PV tents offering the dual purpose of shelter and a remote power supply. Current power systems constitute a substantial portion of the weight load for a special operations warfighter. For example, a soldier on a three-day mission would need to carry nearly 30 pounds of batteries to equal the power of one portable fuel cell system made by Protonex, according to the company. With fuel, the generator weighs less than 5 pounds, and offers increased operating times and fast refueling in the field. Generator power options start at 10 W and go to 1kW. The contract was awarded under the Dual Use Science and Technology (DUST) program established by the National Defense Authorization, which promotes the development of dual use technologies for applications both in the military and commercial sectors. Initiatives are evaluated based on their viability and potential product transition from military use into commercial markets.

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