GM fuel cells to power Navy’s underwater drones

Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

General Motors Co. said Thursday it will provide automotive hydrogen fuel cells to power the next-generation of unmanned undersea Navy vehicles through a partnership with the Office of Naval Research and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.

Karen Swider-Lyons, head of the alternative energy section, chemistry division for the Naval Research Laboratory, said the Navy is looking for “weeks, if not months of endurance” power for its self-piloting undersea vehicles. The systems also need to be highly reliable and have a goal of 60 days endurance, she said.

“We think we’ve found this with our partnership with General Motors,” she said in a call with reporters Thursday.

Hydrogen fuel cells convert hydrogen into electricity, and provide longer range and endurance than battery power. Recharging or refueling takes just minutes and fuel cell vehicles can run on renewable hydrogen from wind and biomass, with water vapor as the only emission.

“Hydrogen has very high energy and fuel cells are very efficient and together you can get very high endurance and that’s what we’re looking for in our program,” Swider-Lyons said.

GM and the Navy have worked together since 2007 and have cooperated on the underwater drones since 2010, the Detroit automaker said. The Department of Defense fiscal 2017 budget included $600 million over five years for unmanned undersea vehicles.

The Naval Research Laboratory recently finished testing a prototype underwater drone at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Carderock, Maryland, with a GM fuel cell serving as the base of the powertrain.

“Our in-water experiments with an integrated prototype show that fuel cells can be game changers for autonomous underwater systems,” Frank Herr, the Office of Naval Research department head for ocean battlespace sensing, said in a statement. “Reliability, high energy, and cost effectiveness — all brought to us via GM’s partnering — are particularly important as Navy looks to use UUVs (unmanned undersea vehicle) as force multipliers.”

GM, mostly since the late 1990s, has invested nearly $3 billion in fuel-cell technology, though it has worked on the technology since the 1960s. It does not have a fuel-cell vehicle on the market but has many relationships related to the technology including a long-term agreement with Honda to co-develop fuel cells and hydrogen storage. The companies have said they could be available around 2020.

The automaker said with volume production, costs can can go down.

“The collaboration with the Navy leveraged what we learned in amassing more than 3 million miles of real-world experience with our Project Driveway fuel cell program,” Charlie Freese, executive director of GM global fuel cell activities, in a statement. “Our customers will benefit from additional lessons we learn about the performance of fuel cells in non-automotive applications that will be useful in GM’s drive to offer fuel cells across consumer markets.”

GM, mostly since the late 1990s, has invested nearly $3 billion in fuel cell technology, though it has worked on the technology since the 1960s. In 2007, it launched a fleet of 119 hydrogen fuel-cell Chevrolet Equinox vehicles that were driven daily.

It also has partnerships with the U.S. Army. Last fall, GM announced it would work with the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development & Engineering Center (TARDEC) to alter a Chevy Colorado pickup to run on hydrogen fuel cells and would test the vehicle in extreme military use for a year. In early 2012, the U.S. Army also unveiled a fleet of 16 GM hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles that then were being evaluated for real world use.

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