What's the military (smart) fuel cell?

Modern soldiers these days got gear, and all that gear requires juice. Sometimes power outlets aren't so easy to find in the battlefield.
Modern soldiers these days got gear, and all that gear requires juice. Sometimes power outlets aren't so easy to find in the battlefield.

You've spent days trekking through unfamiliar territory on a reconnaissance mission, carrying the latest military-grade technology every step of the way. Your scouting platoon comes to a halt and you take the opportunity to pull out your laptop and send updated coordinates back to the base. Just one problem; the battery's dead. No need to panic -- you're carrying a Jenny fuel cell, one of several fuel cells specifically designed by Munich-based SFC Smart Fuel Cell for military use. Using the quiet, portable power that the Jenny fuel cell provides, you're able to recharge your laptop's battery and get to work.

Fuel cells are similar to batteries in a lot of ways, using chemical reactions to produce electrical energy. Unlike batteries, however, fuel cells don't go dead; as long as a fuel source is available, a fuel cell can continue to produce energy.


The idea to use fuel cells for military applications is hardly a new one. Articles exploring the subject go back to the 1950s, but both military and fuel cell technology have advanced significantly since then. Modern soldiers use an amazing array of electrical equipment to do their jobs. Night vision goggles, global positioning systems and computers are just some of the power-hungry devices soldiers carry with them in the field, and finding reliable, portable power for those devices has become an important issue. Batteries for those gadgets can add 20 pounds (9 kilograms) or more to a soldier's load [source: MSNBC]. Fortunately, fuel cell technology has come a long way as well, and SFC is one of the companies pushing the technology forward.

SFC says that its fuel cells, named Smart Fuel Cells, offer several advantages over older fuel cell and battery technology. For one thing, they're up to 80 percent lighter, according to the company. Another advantage is that soldiers can carry replacement fuel cartridges to keep the cell going. Smart Fuel Cells, like most fuel cells, also operate very quietly, an important feature for covert military operations. Unlike many other fuel cells, Smart Fuel Cells operate at a fairly low temperature, making them suitable for carrying in both standard issue military vests and military vehicles alike. Read on to learn how Smart Fuel Cells manage to do all of those things when other fuel cells can't.



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].

Keep reading for more fuel cell links you might like. 


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Defense Update. "Portable Power and Fuel cells for Soldier systems - at Soldiertech 2007. (1/22/2010)http://www.defense-update.com/events/2007/summary/soldiertech07_power.htm
  • Hickey, Kathleen. "Army to provide soldiers with new portable power sources." DefenseSystems. Aug. 4, 2009. (1/22/2010)http://defensesystems.com/articles/2009/08/03/army-to-provide-solders-with-new-portable-power-sources.aspx
  • Hutchinson, Alex. "Portable Fuel Cell Runs on Military Jet Fuel to Power Diesel Trucks." Dec. 12, 2007. (1/22/2010)http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/research/4236742.html
  • Keller, John. "Military fuel cell research for lightweight energy storage is aim of UltraCell." Military & Aerospace Electronics. Dec. 3, 2009. (1/22/2010)http://mae.pennnet.com/display_article/371498/32/ARTCL/none/EXECW/1/Military-fuel-cell-research-for-lightweight-energy-storage-is-aim-of-UltraCell-contract/
  • Matthews, Willam. "Fueled for Growth." DefenseNews. Oct. 5, 2009. (1/22/2010)http://www.defensenews.com/story.php?c=FEA&s=TEC&i=4307552
  • The Milwaukee Journal. "'Chemical' Electricity Shines as a Future Source of Power." Oct. 15, 1959. (1/22/2010)http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=4A0kAAAAIBAJ&sjid=zyUEAAAAIBAJ&pg=3577,4072411&dq=fuel-cell+military&hl=en
  • MSNBC. "Power cell wins $1M Prize." Oct. 6, 2008. (1/22/2010)http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/27055776/wid/6448213
  • Smart Fuel Cell. "Portable power for extended missions." (1/22/2010)http://www.sfc.com/en/man-portable.html
  • Smart Fuel Cell. "SFC fuel cartridges in defense applications." (1/22/2010)http://www.sfc.com/en/man-portable-fuel-cells-fuel-cartridges.html
  • Thompson, Edric. "Improved battery technology sitting unordered in Army inventories." U.S. Army. June 18, 2009. (1/22/2010)http://www.army.mil/-news/2009/06/18/22916-improved-battery-technology-sitting-unordered-in-army-inventory/