Fuel Cells Could Help Army Cut Back on Batteries

Article excerpt

The Army today employs 300 different types of batteries to power every imaginable device-ranging from riflescopes to radios and missile launchers.

A battalion preparing for war literally must bring tens of thousands of batteries to the battlefield, creating enormous logistical burdens.

The battery problem is of particular concern for dismounted soldiers, who already carry more than 100 pounds of gear and cannot afford to be weighed down with additional battery packs.

"Getting the soldier load down and having power sources that will power all the devices the soldier uses is a significant challenge," said George Fisher, an Army advisor at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. "We need some breakthroughs in that area."

Experts say the Army's best hope for an alternative source of "soldier power" is in miniature fuel-cell technology.

One of many ongoing efforts in this arena is under way at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Under sponsorship of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the lab is developing miniaturized low-watt power sources that could be used in soldier devices such as sensors and hand-held wireless systems.

About the size of a cigarette lighter, these tiny power systems convert liquid fuel to electricity via a micro-scale fuel processor coupled with a micro-scale fuel cell. PNNL's fuel reformer, the size of a pencil eraser, converts fuel and water into hydrogen-rich gas. The fuel cell then generates electricity by converting hydrogen and oxygen from the air into electrical power and dean water.

Tests have shown that the system can produce an equivalent power to batteries at about one-third the weight, said Evan Jones, a PNNL researcher.

Battery performance may improve in the future, but only "incrementally," said Jones. …