A new green fuel cell is in the works courtesy of the US Army’s “Center of Lethality,” aka the Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center headquartered at Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey. The fuel cell is designed to run on corn ethanol, which we don’t find particularly exciting nowadays, but it could end up playing an important role in the Army’s ability to manage the hazardous materials waste stream from its munitions manufacturing operations. The project is still in the planning stages but it looks like the Army Ammunition Plant in Middletown, Iowa, will serve as the first test facility.
A New Green Fuel Cell For the US Army
The new green fuel cell was developed by a company called nanoMaterials Discovery Corporation.The test will start with a 10-kilowatt prototype and if it is successful, the fuel cell system will be scaled up to power the Iowa plant’s two-megawatt demand within the next five years or so.
With corn ethanol as an energy source, the Army anticipates generating electricity from the fuel cells at a cost below its current grid-supplied expenses. Along with additional savings related to the fuel cell’s unique catalyst (more on that below), all together the Iowa facility alone could save about $1 million per year.
About That Corn Thing…
Corn as a feedstock is controversial from a food-vs-fuel standpoint, and the use of corn ethanol in the new fuel cell is at odds with the Obama Administration’s focus on next-generation, non-food feedstocks for biofuels. Aside from that, the new green fuel cell does contribute to the Army’s goal of using 25 percent renewable energy by 2025.
The use of a local feedstock for the Iowa plant (Iowa = corn, right?) also contributes to the Army’s Net Zero Vision of powering its facilities with renewable energy that can be produced on site or within the immediate area.
In addition to its environmental and community health purpose, Army Net Zero also serves the national defense goal of enabling key facilities to stay powered up in the event of massive grid and transportation disruptions.
About That Catalyst…
What’s really interesting about the new fuel cell is the catalyst, which Picatinny describes as the “secret sauce” of the whole project because it will enable the Iowa plant to reclaim the energetic materials waste stream from the munitions manufacturing process.
Energetic materials refers to any number of explosives and other high-risk substances used in military systems including rockets and ammunition. In recent years the Defense Department has been focusing on mitigating lifecycle risks for energetic materials, and that’s where the catalyst comes in.
NanoMaterials has developed a catalyst that enables its fuel cell to run off nitramine-based ordinance. Nitramine ordinance includes the powerful explosives RDX and HMX among others. According to the company, the nitramine is used in the fuel cell at ambient temperature, without the need for combustion or other risk-inducing processes.
Initially the idea was to provide the Army with an on-the-go, more lightweight substitute for batteries. The new test involves running the Iowa plant’s energetic waste stream through the fuel cells alongside corn ethanol. The process yields inert gases and also provides the potential for producing useful byproducts.
Picatinny cites potassium acetate, commonly used to de-ice airplanes, as one example.
Currently, the Iowa plant has to pay for disposing the waste as a hazardous material, so the fuel cell would provide it with one of those sustainability twofers (make that a threefer) we’re so fond of: solving a waste disposal problem, saving money and producing a marketable byproduct.
The Green War Of The Future
The new fuel cell is just one of an array of initiatives the Department of Defense has undertaken, to transition into more sustainable materials and waste management practices.
Check out the Army’s Net Zero website, and you’ll find a neatly stated rationale:
“We are creating a culture that recognizes the value of sustainability measured not just in terms of financial benefits, but benefits to maintaining mission capability, quality of life, relationships with local communities, and the preservation of options for the Army’s future.”
A couple of standout example among the recent initiatives are the Defense Department’s elimination of hexavalent chromium and the development of a new class of “green” signal flares that eliminates the use of barium.