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US Military Tests Hydrogen-Powered Vehicles - 2003-04-23

For much of the three-week-long race to Baghdad, supply lines were a major cause of concern for military planners in Iraq. The lines, which stretched hundreds of kilometers all the way back to Kuwait, proved difficult to defend. But they were necessary to provide the millions of liters of fuel to the tanks and other heavy-duty vehicles involved in the operation. And it's the cost and logistics of moving so much fuel that has U.S. military leaders interested in ways to improve their fuel economy and reduce their dependence on traditional fuels.

At Luke Air Force base outside of Phoenix, the roar of F-16s and the rumble of the trucks and other heavy equipment needed to support them goes on 16 hours a day. Lieutenant Kevin Tuttle is a public affairs officer at Luke. "We fly around 175 sorties. We are a training base, so we fly a lot of sorties per day and that adds up to around $200,000 worth of fuel each day," he said.

While an air force base uses an immense amount of fuel, the amount required to deploy a force by ground or sea is even more staggering. "Seventy percent of the stuff we take into the battlefield is fuel, and it's just a huge logistics requirement," said Commander Leo Grassilli, who is with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy.

He says transporting fuel is just the latest logistical problem for military planners. "We call it 'beans, bullets, and black oil'. From the Revolution through the Napoleonic era, the hard part was always the beans trying to make sure there's enough food for the troops," he said. "In WWI, it was getting enough bullets forward. Now the hard part is fuel."

A coalition of military officials, industry groups, and engineers met recently in Arizona to discuss so-called 'clean' heavy-duty vehicles, which would reduce dependence on 'black oil'. While all the branches of the armed forces are pursuing alternative fuels technology, the Army is at the forefront of the effort.

"The message is clear for us: We need to be a lighter, more mobile, more fuel efficient Army," said Paul Skalny, the Deputy Director of the Army's National Automotive Center.

A 1999 executive order called on the Army to reduce its petroleum use by 20 percent by the end of 2005. The Army is already field-testing vehicles that run on hybrid technology, that is, engines powered by both diesel fuel and electricity. But experts say one of the most promising developments in the "Greening of the Army" is a little less sexy than sleek hybrids racing around the desert.

This Auxiliary Power Unit, or APU, won't drive the engines of the Army's long-haul trucks, but it will run almost everything else, from the heating and air conditioning to the vehicle's water pump and other accessories. It's powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. The hydrogen comes from a small set of tanks attached to the cab, but eventually the hydrogen could come directly from the diesel fuel that runs the engine itself.

A fuel-cell APU can increase the efficiency of a typical diesel engine by as much as ten-fold. And the less noise and emissions a truck generates, the lower the chance it'll be spotted by the enemy. According to C.J. Brodrick, a fuel-cell researcher at the University of California Davis, even more remarkable is that once the truck reaches its destination, it becomes a portable generator. "For example, if you needed to do some welding on the spot, we've done some experiments where you literally plug in a welding unit and you power it off of the vehicle in what's called a power take-off operation," he said.

That feature really appeals to military leaders such as Brigadier General Roger Nadeau. In his role as Executive Officer for the Army's Combat Support Systems, he's in charge of a fleet of more than 200,000 vehicles. "If I have a means of generating power that is other than I do it today, I might not need generators, I might not need trailers, I might not need the trucks that pull the trailers, the soldiers that drive the trucks, the soldiers that feed the drivers that drive the trucks that pull the trailers and the generators, and the associated fuel," he said. "And that's where you get that ripple effect, that order of magnitude savings."

Price remains a large obstacle. The cost of building fuel cell-driven APUs is coming down, but there's not yet an infrastructure in place to deliver the hydrogen. In the more immediate future, the Army plans to buy as many as 30,000 hybrid vehicles by 2005 and has set a goal of reducing its fuel requirements by 75 percent by 2010. All this even as the military continues its operations among the oil fields of the Middle East.