What if the first fuel cell vehicle was a tank?

Li-ion batteries, biofuel, hybrid propulsion, such as Renault Trucks Defense’s VAB MkIII Electer,  finding a clean, silent and economical alternative to traditional fuel is now the Holy Grail of military and industry defence laboratories. A key step may have been taken by the US Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Centre (TARDEC) and General Motors (GM) who will reveal a Chevrolet Colorado-based fuel cell electric vehicle in October at the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) in Washington.


Il faudra attendre le mois prochain pour découvrir le premier véhicule militaire propulsé par pile à combustible (Crédit photo: US Army)

The first fuel cell electric military vehicle is being kept under wraps until next month’s AUSA (Photo credit: US Army)


Development of the vehicle was agreed between TARDEC and GM in 2015. The US Army will launch an evaluation and demonstration phase in 2017. The collaboration enables TARDEC to access consumer-driven automotive technology for use in military applications while providing GM with feedback on non-standard fuel cell-technology applications.


We expect the vehicle to be quiet in operation and ready to provide electricity generation for needs away from the vehicle. With fuel cell technology advancing, it’s an ideal time to investigate its viability in extreme military-use conditions,” TARDEC Director Paul Rogers said.


The partnership with GM was natural as the Detroit-based automobile giant already has solid experience in this field. One of its latest hydrogen powered vehicle prototypes, the Hydrogen 4, has a range of 320km thanks to its 440 connected cells fuelling a 73KW (100 HP) engine. Whether just a coincidence, the GM and TARDEC labs specialising in fuel cells are almost neighbours (30km apart).


A fuel cell uses an external supply of chemical energy and can run indefinitely, as long as it is supplied with a source of hydrogen and a source of oxygen (usually the air we breathe). The source of hydrogen is generally referred to as the fuel and this gives the fuel cell its name, although there is no combustion involved. Oxidation of the hydrogen instead takes place electrochemically, the hydrogen atoms reacting with oxygen atoms to form water; in the process electrons are released and flow through an external circuit as an electric current. This process makes fuel cells very environmentally friendly. Extremely silent, this battery is also more powerful than classic batteries and electric motors and can thus be made miniaturised to the extreme.


The only obstacle: the price, notably due to the large quantities of platinum necessary to make them; but science has already found a means of by-passing these costs notably by developing fuel cells with proton exchange membranes.


Even if in France this technology is centred in civilian laboratories (such as the National Research Agency’s Sustainable Land Transport project), the experience of the TARDEC-GM duo could maybe encourage the French military and industry to find applications, say, in a dream world, in the Scorpion programme…