The goal is for these unmanned subs to operate for more than 60 days. General Motors is now working with the U.S. Navy to develop hydrogen fuel cell-powered underwater drones that can operate without recharging for this extended period.

The automaker has been working on hydrogen fuel cells, which convert hydrogen gas into electricity producing vehicles with greater range than those powered with batteries, for years. An unmanned drone could be used for a number of purposes, including research or patroling waters.

This latest collaboration, which was announced Thursday, marks GM’s deepening relationship with the military and the automaker’s exploration into the different ways its fuel cell technology could be used. Recently, the Naval Research Laboratory evaluated a prototype underwater drone equipped with a GM fuel cell.

The partnership is an important part of the U.S. Navy’s goal to develop a long endurance, reliable unmanned undersea vehicle, said Karen Swider Lyons, head of alternative energy division at the Naval Research Laboratory, during a conference call Thursday.

“When you look at what the Navy’s trying to do with unmanned undersea vehicles, they’re looking for weeks, if not months of endurance and therefore we require a highly reliable system,” Lyons said. “Highly reliable systems can take decades to develop and billions of dollars and we think we’ve found that with our partnership with General Motors.”

The Navy is looking at fuel cells because research has shown that the technology is superior for long endurance travel, Lyons added. Hydrogen fuel cells don’t generate carbon dioxide emissions either, which is desirable for the environmental benefits and because it’s stealthier. Once the hydrogen gas is converted to electricity, water vapor is the only emission. Recharging takes only minutes.

“Batteries are important and everybody likes to pursue the question about is it batteries or is it fuel cells,” Charlie Freese, executive director of global fuel cell activities with GM, said on the call. “We’re very certain the answer is you need both.”

GM has found that fuel cell technology is the best way to propel a vehicle for certain uses, said Freese, adding that hydrogen fuel cells solve some unique technical and performance challenges for the Navy. The partnership aims to take advantage of GM’s years—and billions of dollars in investment—of research and development to make fuel cell systems smaller, more durable, and reliable, Freese said.

Image Credit: Office of Naval Research
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