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Air Force demonstrating hydrogen as alternate fuel source

25 passenger bus powered by a hydrogen fuel cell

This 25 passenger crew bus is one of the vehicles powered by a hydrogen fuel cell used at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in a demonstration of hydrogen as an alternative fuel source. (U.S. Air Force photo by J. Brian Garmon)

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. (AFNS) -- The U.S. Air Force is demonstrating hydrogen as an alternate fuel source at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii.

In a recent visit to JB Pearl Harbor-Hickam, members of the Air Force Civil Engineer Center’s Energy and Operations directorates were given a tour of the installation’s hydrogen production facility and shown several of the vehicles that use this alternative fuel. This project, with assets housed at the 647th Logistics Readiness Squadron and with the Hawaii Air National Guard, is part of a cooperative agreement between the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Hawaii Center for Advanced Transportation Technologies. This state organization supports the Hawaii ANG, the National Guard Bureau, and the U.S. Air Force. It is tasked to demonstrate hydrogen technology and its potential applications within the Defense Department.

In areas like Hawaii, where renewable energy resources account for a large portion of the grid’s total electrical capacity, intermittent renewable energy resources, such as wind and solar, become less desirable. Continual sources of renewable energy, such as hydrogen, become an important focus in the shift towards cleaner, cost-effective energy. This is due to the need for a consistent supply of power to meet electrical load demands.

This hydrogen project has been in place for over a decade, originally installed in 2006 as a mobile hydrogen production, compression, storage, and dispensing unit, and was upgraded in 2010. Both systems were set up to support all DoD hydrogen vehicle testing, to include both hydrogen internal combustion and fuel cell vehicles. Some of the hydrogen vehicles currently supported by this station include a 25 passenger crew bus, a MJ-1E fighter weapons loader and a U-30 heavy aircraft tug.

“HCATT’s partnership with AFRL, AFCEC, NGB, HIANG, and the invaluable support from Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz, are key to the program’s success in demonstrating the versatility of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles within DoD,” said Stan Osserman, HCATT director. “These proofs of concept not only provide alternate vehicle choices for the Air Force’s flight line of the future, but also will help the state of Hawaii in its effort to increase hydrogen usage across the islands."

This project not only supports the Air Force’s goal of increasing its renewable energy usage, but also aligns with the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative, launched originally in 2008. HCEI seeks to achieve the nation’s first 100 percent renewable portfolio standards by 2045 and to reduce petroleum use in Hawaii’s transportation sector.

"AFCEC is extremely interested in developments in clean and efficient energy production and storage that may enhance energy resilience for critical Air Force missions,” said Mike Rits, AFCEC subject matter expert on renewable energy and energy resilience. “Efforts to test and expand that portfolio, such as this one, help the Air Force make the most lifecycle cost-effective decisions toward that end."

In a hydrogen electrolysis unit, water is separated into hydrogen and oxygen using electricity. This hydrogen is collected, compressed and stored for fuel while the oxygen is either released into the air or can be collected and used in other applications. In many cases, excess electricity created during peak production by other renewable sources, such as wind and solar, can be used in this process to reduce cost and provide nearly emission-free fuel for the fuel cells.

The collected hydrogen can then be used in hydrogen fuel cells to create electricity as needed. The hydrogen enters the fuel cell, where it has its electrons stripped by a chemical reaction. These electrons then travel through the circuit in the form of electricity and finally return to the cell, where they combine with oxygen entering from the air and the hydrogen ions created from the initial reaction. The only byproduct of this reaction is water, which then drains from the cell.

“Hydrogen fuel cell use is growing exponentially worldwide in the private sector,” added Osserman. “The DoD could benefit, on many different levels, by embracing the adaptability and scalability of hydrogen and fuel cell systems.”

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