General Motors (GM) and the U.S. Navy are collaborating to incorporate automotive hydrogen fuel cell systems into the next generation of the Navy's unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs).

Hydrogen fuel cells convert high-energy hydrogen efficiently into electricity, resulting in vehicles with greater range and endurance than those powered by batteries. The Navy's large-displacement UUV is a new class of undersea vessels that is being designed to conduct intelligence, surveillance and mine countermeasure missions of longer than 70 days in open ocean and coastal areas.

A prototype UUV equipped with a GM fuel cell. Image credit: Office of Naval Research.A prototype UUV equipped with a GM fuel cell. Image credit: Office of Naval Research. The Naval Research Laboratory recently concluded an evaluation of a prototype UUV equipped with a GM fuel cell at the heart of the vessel's powertrain. The tests, a key step in the development of an at-sea prototype, were conducted in pools at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Carderock, Maryland.

“Our in-water experiments with an integrated prototype show that fuel cells can be game changers for autonomous underwater systems," says Frank Herr, department head for Ocean Battlespace Sensing at the Office of Naval Research. "Reliability, high energy and cost effectiveness—all brought to us via GM's partnering—are particularly important as the Navy looks to use UUVs as force multipliers."

Hydrogen fuel cell propulsion technology also helps address two major automotive environmental challenges: petroleum use and carbon dioxide emissions. Fuel cell vehicles can operate on renewable hydrogen from sources like wind and biomass stored for later use. Once converted to electricity, water vapor is the only emission. Recharging takes only minutes.

“The collaboration with the Navy leveraged what we learned in amassing more than three million miles of real-world experience with our Project Driveway fuel cell program,” notes Charlie Freese, executive director of GM Global Fuel Cell Activities. “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.”

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