Fuel Cells for Energy Security

Published Dec. 3, 2012
Fuel cell equipment installed at CERL in Champaign, Ill.

Fuel cell equipment installed at CERL in Champaign, Ill.

BNSF Rail Hybrid Switch Automotive – the most powerful fuel cell land vehicle ever built.

BNSF Rail Hybrid Switch Automotive – the most powerful fuel cell land vehicle ever built.

Clean, Reliable and Cost-effective Power Generation

The steadily rising costs and unreliable supply chain of oil-based fossil fuels, along with the need to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, has led the military to investigate and pursue alternative energy sources with the help of scientists at ERDC’s Construction Engineering and Research Laboratory (CERL). CERL research has led to the development of innovative fuel cell technology which produces heat and power on-site from various fuel sources with efficiency, reliability, security and low impact on the environment.

Prevents Power Supply Failure

Fuel cells are onsite back-up power generators that minimize the threat of interruptions to electrical power supply. Onsite, dispersed power generation can reduce potential power outages due to weather, terrorist activities, or lack of utility generating capacity. Fuel cell technology is highly efficient and produces clean energy with many benefits:

  • Reduces air and noise pollution
  • Increases energy security for many industries and their facilities
  • Reduces atmospheric GHG emissions
  • Provides high electrical efficiencies
  • Combines with other electric sources for micro-grid applications

Offers Inexpensive, Clean Alternative to Rising Energy Costs

Fuel cells can produce power as long as they are supplied with a fuel. Unlike conventional combustion engines, fuel cells produce power via an electro-chemical reaction which does not rely on mechanical parts. They are more efficient, clean and produce significantly less noise than generators. Fuel cells operate on hydrogen, natural gas, methanol, and a variety of other fuels.

As the largest consumer of energy in the U.S., the Department of Defense (DoD) and the U.S. Army are evaluating fuel cells as one technology to help reduce reliance on foreign oil-based fuels. Several demonstration projects are currently underway which highlight the benefits of the technology. These projects include stationary locations with fuel cells ranging from 200 watts to more than 250 kilowatts (kW) per unit to provide backup emergency power, prime power, and combined heat and power for several military installations across the country.

Success Stories

Backup Power Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cell Project—CERL partnered with the Department of Energy to install fuel cells at nine federal installations across the U.S. The buildings receive mission-critical backup power ranging from 1.2 kW to 40 kW. The installation of these units will also provide an opportunity for innovative research. CERL researchers plan to assess the “real-world” costs and benefits of installing and operating a fuel cell backup system and compare it to conventional battery banks (uninterrupted power supply) and generator sets.

Prime Power Fuel Cell at Camp Parks—In partnership with Fuel Cell Energy and Concurrent Technologies Corporation, CERL installed a 300-kW prime-power natural gas fuel cell at the U.S. Army Parks Reserve Forces Training Area in Dublin, Calif. The fuel cell power plant provides power to an electrical sub-station on the base, reducing reliance on the commercial grid and producing approximately half of the power the base needs.  During a three-year demonstration, CERL plans to collect data and use it to improve future fuel cell development and performance.

Fuel Cell Locomotive—CERL partnered with Vehicle Projects Inc. and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway to develop a fuel-cell hybrid switch locomotive for urban rail applications. A fuel cell locomotive does not need extensive power lines and it provides the advantages of traditional catenary-electric and diesel-electric locomotives without causing noise and environmental pollution. It offers higher overall energy efficiency, similar infrastructure costs, and environmental benefits. The 250 kW-fuel cell locomotive, in combination with a traction battery, can provide transient power in excess of 1 megawatt. The 127-metric ton locomotive is the heaviest and most powerful fuel-cell land vehicle ever built. It has enough hydrogen storage for a rigorous eight-to-ten-hour switch cycle.

ERDC Points of Contact
Questions about Fuel Cells?
Contact: Nicholas Josefik
Email: Nicholas.M.Josefik@usace.army.mil
Phone: (217) 373-4436
Updated 25 August 2020

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