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Army backs the hydrogen highway

Military has awarded a $1.8 million contract to Proton Energy Systems to develop hydrogen filling stations.

Proton Energy Systems

In a side bet on "green power," the U.S. Army has awarded a $1.8 million contract to develop hydrogen filling stations for military vehicles, hoping it pays off with reduced fossil-fuel consumption and increased efficiency.

At first glance, this may appear to be a throwaway investment for the Army. Hydrogen fuel requires such a large amount of energy to separate it from water and to compress or liquefy before it's delivered to the user, that it has been criticized as neither sustainable nor an economic alternative to fossil fuels.

However the contractor, Proton Energy Systems claims its patented proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolysis technology produces hydrogen at 200 psig, eliminating the need for mechanical compression and the weighty high-pressure storage tanks that make the fuel so noncompetitive. (PDF)

The Wallingford, Conn.-based company also claims its on-site hydrogen production is a "zero pollution process." This addresses another issue. Hydrogen, as fuel, is not naturally occurring-it can't be mined or pumped out of the ground- it must be synthesized, and that takes electricity, which means that it is competing with its own energy source. Proton Energy Systems counters by pointing out that its hydrogen generators can integrate with renewable electricity or hybrid power sources.

Critics scoff that if renewable and hybrid power sources were so dependable and readily available, we wouldn't be wasting time on hydrogen.

Still, to many the hydrogen highway sounds like--if not a sure bet, at least a safe one. (PDF)

"The United States military is dedicated to developing the latest technology that will ultimately enable the realization of a state-of-the art hydrogen powered installation vehicle fleet which supports our petroleum reduction goals," Proton quotes Paul Skalny, director of the U.S. Army's National Automotive Center, in its announcement this week.