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What's the military (smart) fuel cell?

What's So Smart about Smart Fuel Cells?

We've already touched on some of the different military uses for fuel cells, and the company Smart Fuel Cells (SFC) offers different fuel cells for different applications. The most portable option is the Jenny, which weighs about a pound (0.45 kilograms) and is designed to be carried by a soldier for long periods of time. For more power-intensive operations, SFC has created a larger fuel cell, named the Emily, designed to be carried by vehicles. Finally, SFC offers an even larger fuel cell, named the FC 250, for more permanent field installations. All three options are constructed with rugged casings, function in sweltering conditions and, most important, run on methanol fuel cartridges.

Many fuel cells use hydrogen fuel cartridges to generate electricity, but hydrogen has a big drawback for military applications; it's explosive. Accordingly, hydrogen fuel cartridges have to be housed in tough, heavy tanks to keep soldiers safe. SFC's methanol cartridges, on the other hand, seem safe to handle. In testing, SFC's methanol fuel cartridges were even struck with tracer ammunition and didn't ignite [source: SFC]. As an added benefit, methanol cartridges are both lighter and cheaper than hydrogen cartridges since they don't need such rugged casings. And like hydrogen fuel cells, methanol fuel cells produce no harmful emissions, making them a much greener energy solution than gasoline generators.

Of course, methanol also has some downsides. For one thing, it's not as readily available as some other types of fuel. The military commonly uses a kerosene-based fuel called JP-8, for instance, though fuel cells using JP-8 currently produce dangerous emissions, making methanol the safer, if not cheaper, choice. Methanol fuel cells are also less efficient than some other fuel cell technologies like polymer exchange membrane fuel cells (PEMFCs), though they still offer better power density than alternatives like lead acid batteries.

Despite those drawbacks, the Smart Fuel Cell is a convenient way for soldiers to access power in the field. Soldiers simply plug a rechargeable battery into the Smart Fuel Cell and the fuel cell monitors the charging process, shutting off whenever it's not needed. Soldiers can then power their devices using the rechargeable batteries. If a fuel cell runs out of juice, a soldier simply replaces the fuel cartridge. A single soldier can replace the cartridge on even the largest fuel cells offered by SFC, making Smart Fuel Cell operation a pretty painless process. Researchers from companies like Adaptive Materials Inc. and laboratories like the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are continually making fuel cells lighter, more powerful and more flexible, so keep an eye out for new innovations and applications for fuel cells moving forward [sources: MSNBC, Hutchinson].

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