Much like microwaves and satellites, the US military could serve as an incubator for hydrogen fuel cell vehicle technology, helping it advance to a point where it can stand on its own in the global marketplace. In one of the latest examples of the private sector collaborating with the military on new technologies, General Motors and the U.S. Army, Pacific recently launched a 16 hydrogen fuel cell vehicle fleet in Hawaii.

The US Army views this as a worthwhile investment because its desire to reduce fossil fuel reliance, which can be a security concern. The contract is for a fleet of administrative vehicles that will be driven on base and around Oahu.

This initiative is a relatively small start given total military fuel consumption, but the Hawaiian project could be an important milestone if it proves successful. And road vehicles are just one component of wider hydrogen fuel cell experimentation. The Army and other armed services branches are pursuing hydrogen fuel cell technology for other applications including unmanned aerial vehicles, underwater vehicles, robotics and freight transport tools like forklifts, James Muldoon, Science Officer, U.S. Army, Pacific, told Breaking Energy.

Paradise as a Perfect Proving Ground

The Hawaiian island of Oahu is an ideal test location for this technology as it provides a unique combination of factors that include humidity, sea spray, extreme changes in elevation and high fuel costs compared to other states.

General Motors and the Army can test the vehicles under a range of conditions given the island’s geographic characteristics and making this investment in a high-fuel cost environment allows the Army to recognize a stronger return on investment than in a cheaper fuel cost location, says Muldoon.

Now It’s Up to the Market

From GM’s perspective, military contracts like this one can serve as a launch pad to the private marketplace. If the Army becomes a successful hydrogen fuel cell vehicle fleet-user, it can attract private companies, says Charles Freese, Executive Director of Fuel Cell Activities at GM.

The business case is most important’ – Muldoon

It is still too early to talk about consumer costs for this technology, says Freese. But GM does have a cost reduction map in place and sees parity with other advanced fuel technologies begin around 2022, when second and third generation fuel cells start to become available.

Hydrogen fuel cells are nothing new – NASA has been using them for 50 years – the technology is proven says James Muldoon. According to Freese, GM has been experimenting with the technology for over 15 years and has learned a great deal along the way, greatly reducing fuel cell size and weight, while increasing drivable range, which can now reach approximately 300 miles.

In addition to GM, original equipment manufacturers including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Ford, Chrysler and Honda are all working on hydrogen fuel cells, and Muldoon says now the business case is most important next step.