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Advanced Fuel Cell Vehicles of the Future

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Guest ONR

the global automobile industry considers alternative energy sources to replace the traditional internal combustion engine, Jessie Pacheco, a mail clerk at Camp Pendleton, has been making his rounds to Marines in General Motors (GM) Chevrolet Equinox fuel cell vehicles (FCVs). The Office of Naval Research (ONR) has sponsored the GM FCVs at Camp Pendleton since 2006 with two more scheduled to arrive later this year.

 

“These vehicles are the future,” says Pacheco. “It’s great to see people drive by me, giving me the thumbs up, and asking ‘Where can I get one?’”

 

“Fuel cell vehicle research is clearly a case where the Navy and Marine Corps need are propelling advanced technology that also has potential benefit to the public,” says Rear Admiral Nevin Carr, Chief of Naval Research. Within the Navy-Marine Corps Team, ONR has been researching power and energy technology for decades. Often the improvements to power generation and fuel efficiency for ships, aircraft, vehicles and installations have direct civil application for public benefit.

 

“There is not a drop of oil in it,” explains Shad Balch, a GM representative at Camp Pendleton. “The electric motor provides maximum instant torque right from the get go.” The efficiency of a hydrogen-powered fuel cell may prove to be twice that of an internal combustion engine, if not greater, adds Balch.

 

From an operational perspective, the fuel cell vehicle is quiet yet powerful, emits only water vapor, uses fewer moving parts compared to a combustion engine, and offers an alternative to the logistics chain associated with current military vehicles.

 

Closer to home, the addition of fuel cell vehicles to Camp Pendleton provides a glimpse into the future of advanced transportation technology that reduces reliance on petroleum and affords environmental stewardship benefits such as reduced air pollution and a smaller carbon footprint for Navy and Marine Corps bases.

 

Balch also notes that, “Partnering with the military gives us critical feedback from a truly unique application. This will help us as we engineer our next generation of fuel cell vehicles.”

 

Technology underwrites the solutions to both national and naval energy needs. As an ONR program officer in the 1990s, Richard Carlin, Ph.D., recognized the potential of alternative fuel research to help meet the energy challenges of the future. Today, as ONR’s director of power and energy research, Carlin is pleased to see the positive reaction to the fuel cell vehicle research program.

 

“This is an example of where the value of investment in science and technology can really pay off,” says Carlin. “Besides the potential energy savings and increased power potential of fuel cell technology, the research and testing we are doing will address challenges like hydrogen production and delivery, durability and reliability, onboard hydrogen storage and overall cost.”

 

For example, through its testing ONR has made advances in the storage necessary for achieving greater range in fuel cell automobiles.

 

Dave Shifler, the program officer managing the alternative fuels initiatives at ONR, emphasizes that partnerships are essential when bringing a new technology forward.

 

“With the right partnerships, you can accomplish almost anything,” stressed Shifler. “We have teamed with the Army from the beginning on this research, sharing technical support, contracting support and usage of the GM fuel cell vehicle.”

 

ONR fuel cell research has not been limited to vehicles and spans the operational spectrum: from ground vehicles to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), to man-portable power for Marines and afloat. Hydrogen powered fuel cell technology is one of many programs at ONR in the power and energy research field that is helping the Navy meet the energy needs of both the warfighter and the public.

 

ONR’s partnerships in fuel cell vehicle research include: Headquarters Marine Corps; the Marine Corps Garrison Mobile Equipment office; Southwest Region Force Transportation; Naval Facilities Engineering Services Center, Port Hueneme; Department of Energy (Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy), South Coast Air Quality Management District; California Air Resources Board; California Fuel Cell Partnership; Defense Energy Support Center, General Motors; Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division; U.S. Fuel Cell Council; U.S. Army TARDEC/NAC, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Environment.

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Guest switch2hydrogen

Powering a vehicle by Hydrogen is by no means a new idea, and in fact, almost all automobile manufacturers are currently developing a new generation of vehicles that run on Hydrogen as opposed to Gasoline. This new generation of vehicles are essentially electric cars that use a Fuel Cell instead of a battery to run the electric motor. Using a chemical process, Fuel Cells in these new vehicles convert the stored Hydrogen on board, and the Oxygen in the air, directly into electricity to power their electric motors. These new Hydrogen powered electric vehicles are very efficient, and in fact are more efficient than any internal combustion engine. The problem is that these new vehicles are years away from production, are very expensive, and converting to using Hydrogen fuel in this manner requires you to buy a new ( and expensive ) vehicle. All Hydrogen/Fuel Cell systems currently under development by large manufacturers have you purchase Hydrogen as you would Gasoline.

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Guest Mike Janes

Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories have successfully designed and demonstrated key features of a hydrogen storage system that utilizes a complex metal hydride material known as sodium alanate. The system, developed through a multiyear project funded by General Motors Corp., stores 3 kilograms of hydrogen and is large enough to evaluate control strategies suitable for use in vehicle applications.

 

The design tools developed by Sandia researchers now provide GM with a workable template for future designs, which is expected to significantly save the company costs and time when developing hydrogen storage systems for onboard vehicular applications.

 

“For GM, the enduring value of this project can be found in the design concepts, computational tools, and control strategies that Sandia developed,” said Jim Spearot, GM lead executive for hydrogen storage. “With this new body of knowledge and information, we will be able to quickly design viable systems as new storage materials emerge.”

 

Methods have been validated

 

Sandia researchers are quick to point out that the system was not meant to fit on board a vehicle, and that sodium alanate will not be the material of choice for onboard storage of hydrogen. But, although it is indeed larger and heavier than a viable automotive storage system requires, the system’s engineered elements address many of the thermal management issues that are necessary for successful vehicular storage of hydrogen.

 

“We’ve shown that we can engineer vehicle-scale energy storage systems to meet a variety of operating requirements and driving cycles, and our design methods have been validated for relevant materials,” said Sandia engineer Terry Johnson.

 

Johnson said Sandia is well-equipped to do similar work on behalf of other companies, including those that manufacture rolling stock, specialty, or heavy-duty vehicles. Companies that focus on other niche applications, including underwater, military, or unmanned aerial vehicles, would likely benefit from Sandia’s expertise, too, he said.

 

Modular heat exchange system allows flexibility

 

In addition to its size and storage capacity, the unique features of the Sandia system include an advanced heating system whereby a fraction of the stored hydrogen is used to provide heat to release the remaining hydrogen. This method — the catalytic combustion of hydrogen — is not new, Johnson said, but is unique to this particular application and the first to be successfully demonstrated. “We chose not to use resistive (electrically driven) heating, because it would have necessarily resulted in a larger and heavier system,” he said.

 

After considering a number of thermal management options, Sandia selected a “shell and tube” heat exchanger, a heating technique common in many industrial processes. The “SmartBed” — a term coined by Sandia that refers to the method for controlling a modular storage system — consists of four identical modules, each of which contains a shell and tube heat exchanger. The material used to store the hydrogen — sodium alanate — resides within the tubes, which essentially serve as a high-pressure storage vessel. Inside the shell, a heating fluid circulates to transfer heat to and from the sodium alanate.

 

The modular design of the system means that only a minimum amount of the storage material needs to be heated at any one time. The design also aids in the packaging of the system to fit on board a vehicle.

 

Sandia’s work with GM on a hydrogen storage system reflects the lab’s long history of exploring basic science for energy and transportation. From developing renewable means of producing hydrogen, to discovering the science behind hydrogen safety, to creating the building blocks of hydrogen and fuel cell systems, Sandia scientists and engineers are actively working to help hydrogen and fuel cells take their place in a sustainable energy future. Sandia is actively seeking commercial partners to further develop its hydrogen storage technologies.

 

 

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Sandia is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin company, for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has major R&D responsibilities in national security, energy and environmental technologies, and economic competitiveness.

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