A collaboration has marked a significant step in increased energy efficiency for the US Navy after evaluating the viability of using fuel cells in its underwater vessels.

General Motors (GM), the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the US Naval Research Laboratory have been undertaking experiments to incorporate automotive hydrogen (H2) fuel cell systems into the next generation of Navy unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs).

As part of the project, the Naval Research Laboratory has recently completed the evaluation of a prototype UUV with a GM fuel cell at the heart of the vehicle powertrain, marking a key step in the development of an at-sea prototype.

Our in-water experiments with an integrated prototype show that fuel cells can be game changers for autonomous underwater systems

Frank Herr, head of ONR’s Ocean Battlespace Sensing department, signified, “Our in-water experiments with an integrated prototype show that fuel cells can be game changers for autonomous underwater systems. Reliability, high-energy and cost effectiveness – all brought to us via GM’s partnering – are particularly important as Navy looks to use UUVs as force multipliers.”

With water as the only by-product, the attributes of GM’s fuel cells match the goals of the US Navy in developing reliable, affordable fuel systems. They are compact, lightweight and can be recharged in a matter of minutes.

The fuel cell incorporation goes some way to contributing towards ONR’s Innovative Naval Prototype programme for Large Displacement UUVs, in which energy efficiency is a core element in the Navy’s long-term goals.

To infinity, and beyond

NASA is another major US organisation making the leap towards fuel cell sustainability. America’s space agency is currently pursuing a variety of alternative power sources for its aerospace vehicles, focusing on alkaline fuel cell power system developments and operations.

In recent years, both the US Department of Energy (DOE) and private industry investors have made significant advances in the development of proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells using H2 and air as the fuel and oxidant for its ground-transportation applications.

But it is understood that fuel cells could soon be fuelling its aerospace activities as well. Along with evaluating solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs), NASA is building upon these PEM developments with the aim to dramatically advance fuel cell technologies for reliable, high-energy, renewable power sources for its aerospace applications.

NASA space shuttle

NASA space shuttle

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