From microwave ovens to Humvees, the military has a long history of developing and fine-tuning new technologies that later become accessible to the general public. To be sure, some have flopped while others have become household necessities. Whether the latest experiment will go the way of the self-propelled one-man flight apparatus or be the second coming of the Internet, only time will tell. In either scenario, military testing can often be seen as a barometer of new technology trends in the making.

This summer, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) announced a joint partnership to install and operate 18 fuel cell backup-power systems at eight military installations across the country. The two agencies will test the performance of fuel cells as emergency backup-power applications and make recommendations to manufacturers for possible improvements.
Fuel cells offer a cost-effective and more environmentally friendly alternative to conventional diesel generators for backup-power generation because they use no petroleum, produce less noise and emissions, require less maintenance, and can be operated remotely.

Like most developing technologies, the biggest challenge facing fuel cells in their quest to compete with established, traditional sources of power is the cost of the initial investment. The DOE hopes to at least partially address this issue through the experimental testing at the eight DOD installations. Large scale, targeted deployments like these can improve the economics of the technology and ultimately lead to more widespread use.

The emergency fuel cell backup power units will be tested at Fort Bragg, N.C.; Fort Hood, Texas; the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.; Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.; Picatinny Arsenal, N.J.; Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Base, Colo.; U.S. Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, Calif.; and the Ohio National Guard, Columbus, Ohio.

The DOD’s Army Corps of Engineers will manage the $6.6 million project, and the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory will compile, analyze and publish the data.