The military is heading into an emissions-free future — or so it hopes — in a new hydrogen fuel cell-powered pickup truck jointly developed by General Motors Co. and the U.S. Army.

The Chevrolet Colorado ZH2 prototype was unveiled Monday at the annual Association of the United States Army meeting in Washington, D.C.  The experimental vehicle — a collaboration between the automaker and the Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center, or TARDEC — is an early step by the military to wean itself off fossil fuel.

“The speed with which innovative ideas can be demonstrated and assessed is why relationships with industry are so important to the Army,” said TARDEC Director Paul Rogers. “Fuel cells have the potential to expand the capabilities of Army vehicles significantly through quiet operation, exportable power and solid torque performance, all advances that drove us to investigate this technology further.”

Vehicles that run on hydrogen fuel cells operate more efficiently than those relying on internal combustion engines. Hydrogen fuel is cleaner to produce than diesel and ejects water as a byproduct instead of carbon dioxide.

The Colorado ZH2 uses hydrogen gas, which is compressed in high-pressure tanks and exposed to an electromagnetic ionizer that bonds the two hydrogen atoms to an oxygen atom pulled from the air. The bonding process generates an electrical charge that powers the vehicle’s electric motor.

A pickup truck equipped with hydrogen fuel cell technology represents a directional shift for the military, which is a major culprit in fossil fuel emissions. The Department of Defense found that its operations consumed more than 88 million barrels of oil in the 2015 fiscal year.

In addition to its eco-friendly pedigree, the Colorado ZH2 also features powerful capabilities suitable for military equipment. Its travel range exceeds that of traditional electric vehicles. Its hulking frame stands more than 6 feet tall and more than 7 feet wide.

TARDEC and GM stretched the Colorado’s chassis, reinforced its interior and exterior, and equipped it with 37-inch tires and a modified suspension suited for the military’s off-road needs. The vehicle can haul 1,300 pounds— or roughly four soldiers and their gear.

The Army is testing other hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as well. A fleet of 119 fuel cell-equipped Chevrolet Equinoxes has already clocked more than 3.1 million miles, driven by more than 5,000 civilians and troops participating in GM’s Project Driveway program.

Other military branches are also interested. Hawaii’s military motor pool fleet welcomed 16 hydrogen-powered GM electric vehicles in 2012. The U.S. Navy is looking into fuel cell vehicles, such as GM’s Unmanned Undersea Vehicle, and mobile devices powered by the technology.

Hydrogen fuel cells have multipurpose benefits for military machinery and soldiers on the ground, said Aaron St. Leger, professor of electrical engineering at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

In addition to transportation, equipped vehicles can provide electrical and thermal power. The ZH2 can create up to 50 kilowatts of electricity each hour, or enough to power several homes. The pickup also emits two gallons of water each hour.

Having a mobile source of exportable energy and water lightens the physical load soldiers must carry.

Vehicles running on hydrogen fuel cells produce more low-end torque, which allows them to perform the off-road navigation crucial for military operations. And the technology is much quieter than internal combustion engines — a possible advantage in combat situations.

However, experts warn that mainstream military adoption of hydrogen fuel cell technology will not be immediate. Of more than 800 U.S. military bases in more than 70 countries, only one or two have hydrogen fueling stations.

St. Leger said the Army needs to determine how to set up a hydrogen supply chain. Will the fuel be produced using electrolysis, fermentation or another process? Will troops have to create hydrogen on site or wait for deliveries?

“This is a critical issue that must be handled prior to widespread adoption,” he said.

The Army plans to start trying out the Colorado in extreme field conditions next year. But TARDEC — which develops lasers, robots, high-performance computing machines and war vehicles for the military — will first test the pickup at the Milford Proving Grounds in Michigan.

Researchers will investigate the ZH2’s performance in near-silent field operations as well as its capacity for reduced acoustic and thermal signatures, electric drivetrain torque output, fuel consumption, and water by-product applications.

“Over the next year, we expect to learn from the Army the limits of what a fuel cell propulsion system can do when really put to the test,” said Charlie Freese, executive director of GM’s Global Fuel Cell Activities division.

About The Author

Deanna Isaacs

Deanna Isaacs is a Seattle-based automotive reporter. Prior to becoming an automotive reporter, Isaacs was an award-winning local newspaper reporter. She can be found on Twitter: @Deanna_Isaacs.

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