Navy studies potential of fuel cells to run unmanned vehicles

August 13, 2012 - via ZDNet

The U.S. Navy has signed a $3.8 million contract with FuelCell Energy, one of the leading developers in this slice of the energy storage space. The research and development effort covered under the agreement will test applications for a Hybrid Solid Oxide Fuel Cell battery system that can run undermanned, undersea vehicles on missions of up to 70 days, according to the information released by FuelCell. That's about 1,800 kilowatt-hours of electricity.

The sorts of vessels supported by the battery system are ones that are submerged and then left to their own devices, providing intelligence and information about the underwater area they are monitoring. Sort of a big underwater spy camera. (The official name for this class is Large Displacement Unmanned Underwater Vehicle.)
FuelCell's technology was picked for the project because it minimzes the use of both stored fuel and oxygen that needs to be stored within the confines of these vehicles.

There are several other teams that will be working with the company on the project, including Versa Power Systems (which is related company), the Energy Systems Division of the NASA Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, Yardney Technical Products, Naval Underwater Warfare Center and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

The first phase of the project will be 18 months long.

Diverse Potential for Fuel Cells
The Navy project is yet another example of how fuel cells and other advanced energy storage technologies might be at least part of the answer when it comes to develop clean energy sources. There are also plenty of pilot projects under way to study how energy storage might help back up intermittent renewable energy technologies, such as solar or wind generators. One example is the test of how lithium-ion batteries might supplement solar in a development near Sacramento, Calif.

A growing number of businesses, notably Whole Foods, are using fuel cells to help provide a source of backup power -- grocery stores are usually one of the first places restored during community power outages but many companies are seeking an even higher degree of potential grid independence.

The fuel cell industry overall has been experiencing sporadic growth over the past 12 months, according to a new analysis by Pike Research, a division of Navigant Energy. In 2011, unit shipments broke 20,000 for the first time, but certain sectors experienced growing pains. For example, Pike points out that shipments of portable fuel cells fell 16 percent and a number of companies exited the market. The other two major application areas are for transporation and as stationary power sources. If all goes well, the industry could reach $15.7 billion by 2017, Pike predicts.

Last year, Pike published a report naming UTC Power as the market leader for "strategy" and "execution," although another FuelCell Energy earned the highest overall marks.

Another leading fuel cell maker is Bloom Energy, which counts Owens Corning, Urban Outfitters, AT&T, Google, eBay, Walmart and Coca-Cola among its customers.

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Author:Heather Clancy