Several defense programs currently are funding fuel cell research in an effort to reduce the military services' reliance on batteries. But in order for fuel cells to become accepted, several obstacles, including the cost to generate power, must be overcome.
To make the 165-year-old technology affordable, experts said, manufacturers will have to standardize their products and commercial demand for fuel cells will have to grow.
Researchers and scientists believe the technology has the capability to power everything from cell phones and laptop computers to the Navy's future fleet of electric ships. The potential to miniaturize fuel cells could make them ideal power sources for soldiers already burdened with ever-heavier ruck-sacks. The Coast Guard has looked at fuel cells to power lighthouses and to make the service less dependent on the commercial electrical grid.
"We need to understand fuel cell technology a little bit better in order to make viable recommendations on where and how to apply fuel cells," said Ken Burt, fuel cell project lead, Naval Surface Warfare Center, Crane Division, who spoke at the 2003 Tri Service Power Expo.
Fuel cells are chemical engines that produce electricity, as long as there is a steady supply of hydrogen and oxygen. The by-products of fuel cells are water and heat, making them environmentally friendly.
Since 1977, the Department of Energy has invested $1.7 billion in fuel cell programs. The near-term goal is to lower the cost of fuel-cell energy, said Dianne Hooie, of the National Energy Technology Laboratory.
"Costs have to be lower, and [we] have to have higher reliability. The cost of fuel cells is still way too high for wide market acceptance," she said. "By 2010, we want to be down to $400 per kW."
The DOE believes it can reach that goal through high-volume and low-cost manufacturing and technology. Marketing studies show that reaching $400 per kW by 2010 is possible, said Hooie at the Tri Service Power Expo.
In fact, it's possible to achieve $50 per kW by 2015 if there is a wide enough marketing and manufacturing base. That would include the transportation sector, as well as developing fuel cells for a variety of applications, in under to make them cost effective, Hooie added.
The government and industry have teamed up to create the Solid State Energy Conversion Alliance (SECA), an endeavor to bring fuel cells down to $400 kW.
"Companies believe they can do it, if they can make 10,000 [fuel cells] a...