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Document created: 1 March 04
Air & Space Power Journal - Spring 2004

Fuel Cells

Powerful Implications

Lt Col David P. Blanks, USAF

Editorial Abstract: Getting somewhere, sharing information, and producing things all require energy. However, our primary source of energy—oil—is nonrenewable and exhaustible. If we wish to advance, we must seek an alternative, such as hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe. Fuel cells have the potential not only to transform the future energy needs of the United States and the US Air Force, but also to change how and why we fight.

Energy is the lifeblood of the global economy. Getting somewhere, sharing information, and producing things all require energy. Throughout the industrial age and into the information age, energy has served as the foundation for mankind’s progress. However, our primary source of energy—oil—is nonrenewable and exhaustible. As Kenneth Deffeyes writes, “Fossil fuels are a one-time gift that lifted us from subsistence agriculture.”1 In other words, petroleum products have gotten us where we are, but if we wish to advance, we must look elsewhere for our energy.

Hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, represents an alternative source of energy. Indeed, moving from oil-based to hydrogen-based energy sources presents intriguing possibilities. Fuel cells, a current and growing technology that harnesses hydrogen for energy production, are an important part of that transition. To extend the capabilities and operational advantages it needs to confront future challenges, the US Air Force should include research and development of fuel cells and other alternative-energy sources in its transformation strategies. Not only do fuel cells have the potential to transform how the military operates, but also they may change how and why we fight.

Fuel cells have the potential to transform the future energy needs of the United States. To devise strategies to make that potential a reality, air and space power professionals must review ongoing conflicts over energy and fossil-fuel resources; understand the promise and limitations of fuel-cell technologies; and take advantage of the transformation available through cheap, renewable energy.

Energy and Conflict

Energy resources are major causes of conflict in the modern era—take, for example, the Gulf War of 1991. The United States participated in this UN-sanctioned effort to liberate Kuwait in part because access to energy resources was a vital national interest. The national security strategy of 2000 echoed the importance of such access: “The United States will continue to have a vital interest in ensuring access to foreign oil sources. We must continue to be mindful of the need for regional stability and security in key producing areas . . . to ensure our access to, and the free flow of, these resources.”2 More than a decade after Operation Desert Storm, the national security strategy expresses similar sentiments concerning the importance of energy to the United States and its allies: “We will strengthen our own energy security and the shared prosperity of the global economy by working with our allies, trading partners, and energy producers to expand the sources and types of global energy supplied.”3 As players in the global economy continue to seek alternatives to oil, conflict will either intensify or diminish, thus changing the character and the location of future wars—but not necessarily the motivations. The development and proliferation of fuel cells may not guarantee world peace, but it should reduce our dependence on oil and minimize the role of energy as a source of international conflict.

One can hardly overestimate the importance of the world’s supply of fossil fuels for energy needs. The US Department of Energy (DOE) reports that current worldwide oil demand amounts to approximately 74 million barrels per day (mbd).4 Projected worldwide demand through the year 2020 ranges from a low of 90 mbd to a high of 130.5 The current estimated worldwide supply of oil ranges from 1 trillion barrels to 1.8 trillion.6 Given the range of consumption, one could estimate that exhaustion of the supply could occur anytime between the years 2025 and 2050, but this figure can be misleading. Some experts argue that one should examine production capacity in terms of demand—that is, speculate when the production peak will cause demand to outstrip supply.7 This prediction becomes important because it drives part of the when-and-why discussion for moving from fossil fuels to alternative-energy sources.

Again, estimates vary, but some scientists believe that, under today’s conditions—price, distribution ability, political environment, and so forth—approximately 1.4 trillion barrels of economically recoverable oil are available.8 Assuming that worldwide demand ranges from a low of 75 mbd to a high of 130, the best estimate for when demand begins to outstrip supply occurs somewhere between 2008 and 2020.9 Oil production will continue, but other economic factors will shape the marketplace. Either the price of crude oil will begin to rise in order to curb demand, or consumers will pay more for a larger share of the available supply. Inevitably, both outcomes will occur to one degree or another.

When the cost of oil exceeds $30 per barrel, alternative-energy sources become more economically viable. Such alternatives cover the gamut—from coal, to nuclear, to solar, to hydrogen—all with their own advantages and disadvantages. In the context of near-term development and exploitation, hydrogen power holds promise as the next major energy source for mankind. In particular, fuel cells offer tremendous potential to meet an ever-increasing energy appetite.

The Nature of Fuel Cells

Fuel cells are miniature power plants that convert the chemical energy inherent in hydrogen and oxygen into direct-current electricity without combustion.10 Unlike batteries, which store energy, fuel cells produce electricity as long as fuel is supplied. As we will see, the types of available hydrogen fuels vary significantly. Welsh chemist William Grove first proposed developing fuel cells in 1839. As he studied the electrolysis of water—the process of breaking it down into molecular hydrogen and oxygen—he concluded that there must be a way to reverse the process and combine the two elements.11 Through experimentation, Grove and others laid the foundation for creating efficient fuel-cell energy sources. The idea remains simple: “Harness the chemical attraction between oxygen . . . and hydrogen . . . to produce electricity.”12 Generating electricity by using the two most abundant elements on Earth could provide power to mankind through the next millennium.

The chemistry of fuel cells is straightforward, and all types draw upon the same technology. The proton-exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell, for example, is composed of an anode (the negative post), a cathode (the positive post), an electrolytic membrane to block electron flow, and a catalyst that facilitates the chemical reaction (fig. 1).13 With hydrogen flowing across the anode, the catalyst splits the hydrogen into electrons and protons, diverting the electrons to an external circuit to be used as electricity while the protons flow through the membrane. Oxygen is pumped into the cathode side, reacting with the hydrogen protons to form water.14 Although a single fuel cell produces only a minuscule 0.7 volts, densely stacking PEM fuel cells can produce much greater voltages.15

Figure 1. Typical fuel-cell configuration.

Figure 1. Typical fuel-cell configuration. (Adapted from Sharon Thomas and Marcia Zalbowitz, Fuel Cells: Green Power, Los Alamos National Laboratory, http://education.lanl.gov/resources/fuelcells/fuelcells.pdf, 6, 12 [March 3, 2002].)

Fuel cells present numerous opportunities for energy production. First, they are inherently more efficient than internal-combustion engines because the intermediate step of combustion is eliminated.16 Second, with pure hydrogen as the fuel source, water is the only emission from fuel-cell reactions. Thus, these devices have the advantage of operating free of greenhouse gas (e.g., methane, carbon dioxide, etc.) and pollutants, thereby satisfying numerous environmental concerns.17 Finally, since fuel cells are inherently reliable, they could conceivably act as a source of truly distributed power.18

Carol Werner notes that “different types of fuel cells are named according to the type of medium used to separate the hydrogen and oxygen.”19 Besides the PEM type, at least four variants exist, each with advantages and disadvantages:

1. Alkaline: principal application in space; operates between 60 and 90o C.

2. Phosphoric acid: used in stationary power applications; operates between 160 and 220o C.

3. Molten carbonate: stationary power, most promising future power-generation technology; operates between 620 and 660o C.

4. Solid oxide: power generation operating at highest temperatures of 800–1,000o C.20

Although the promise of cheap, abundant power sounds exciting, the true test comes in demonstrating practical energy-production capability. Since the National Aeronautics and Space Administration began using alkaline fuel cells in the early 1960s, tremendous progress has been made in decreasing their size and increasing their capacity to produce usable electrical energy. Fuel cells now range in size from microdevices to power-grid-enhancing units. Their future holds even greater efficiencies and more utility.

Faced with the relatively slow and costly incremental advances in chemical-battery technology over the last 50 years, numerous organizations have turned to micro fuel cells “as the hot portable energy source of the future.”21 For example, both the laptop computer and cellular-phone industries are investigating fuel-cell batteries because consumers demand longer battery life and greater reliability. Whereas the life of lithium-ion batteries is measured in hours, fuel cells may deliver energy as long as fuel is available.22 Many problems remain, however, not the least of which is squeezing sufficient wattage out of an ever-decreasing real estate. Nevertheless, current micro fuel cells are being successfully tested in cellular phones. As consumers search for ways to free themselves from wall plugs and power outlets in cars, companies such as Motorola seek to meet market demands by using micro fuel cells. Among the many challenges for these applications is the fact that the by-products of fuel cells are heat and water, both of which are obviously undesirable to cell-phone users.23 Overcoming the impediments presented by designing and marketing viable fuel-cell technologies that support consumer products may occupy the research-and-development community for the remainder of the decade.

From micro to macro, fuel-cell usage today ranges from homes, to power grids, to over 30 Department of Defense installations. Even though these fuel cells primarily serve niche markets that demand assured access to power, the fact that these alternative-energy sources have become widely accepted bodes well for their future. Fuel cells in the five-to-10-kilowatt (kW) range are available to the consumer-housing market. Meeting the energy needs of a typical four-bedroom home, a 5 kW fuel cell also has the capacity to charge conventional batteries and produce excess power that the owners can sell back to the power grid. Peter Bos, chief executive officer of an energy-consulting company, predicts that “1 percent of U.S. homes will have fuel cells between 2006 and 2010, when a 5kW model will cost roughly $7,000. A few years after that . . . fuel cells will cost only $1,200 and be in half of U.S. homes. By 2031, 99 percent of the homes in the United States won’t need to be hooked up to the electrical grid.”24

At present, office buildings, hospitals, the electrical-power industry, and others can buy fuel cells in the 300 kW, one-and-a-half-megawatt (MW), and 3 MW ranges.25 Fuel cells presently capture only a tiny fraction of the overall electric market, but they offer many advantages, including cost-competitiveness in shrinking petroleum markets, truly distributed power sources, and favorable environmental effects. Although no one is talking about closing down coal, oil, or nuclear power plants, it is quite conceivable that macro-fuel-cell capacity will continue to grow from megawatt to gigawatt (109 watts) capacities. Nevertheless, the largest portion of fuel-cell research—the one most likely to affect the most people in the near future—includes devices used in the transportation industry.

According to a Federal Transportation Advisory Group report entitled Vision 2050: An Integrated National Transportation System, “the United States transportation system consumes approximately 12.5 million barrels of oil each day,”26 nearly two-thirds of the daily national oil usage. Because oil is a nonrenewable resource and because expected demand will outstrip supply well before 2020, as mentioned above, we must do something about our dependence on petroleum: “If just 20 percent of cars used fuel cells, the U.S. could cut oil imports by 1.5 million barrels everyday.”27 Clearly, fuel cells will have their greatest transformational effect in the transportation sector.

Automakers are on the leading edge of developing and exploiting fuel-cell technology. Every major auto manufacturer has or has scheduled a fuel-cell-based car for near-term production. Essentially, such vehicles are electric cars that do not “plug in” each night to recharge their batteries. Rather, they generate electricity from some form of hydrogen-rich fuel. Currently, fuel-cell cars and buses provide mileage ranges commensurate with those of conventional gas-powered vehicles. The principal challenges lie in making these vehicles cost-competitive with those powered by internal-combustion engines and in developing a safe and efficient fuel-distribution infrastructure.

First-generation fuel-cell cars are now available, but fuel-cell-powered airplanes remain a mere twinkle in developers’ eyes, although the Boeing Company plans to develop and test a fully electric airplane supplied by fuel cells.28 Despite this ambitious goal, most developers see only a secondary role for these devices on aircraft. Although hydrogen—liquid hydrogen, in particular—has been used as aviation and rocket fuel, hydrogen-fed fuel cells could generate electricity for equipment such as auxiliary power units. Nevertheless, ongoing studies at the Air Force Research Laboratory foresee unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) fully propelled and supplied by fuel cells by 2010.29 These innovative aircraft have the potential to shape strategy for years to come.

Despite the size or capacity of fuel-cell technology, the current debate concerns which form of hydrogen fuel to propagate. The winner in the fuels race will determine the rate of fuel-cell proliferation. Three of the main contenders at this time are pure hydrogen, methanol or other liquid hydrocarbons, and methane (natural gas), each of which presents unique challenges for fuel-cell development and fuel distribution.

Not surprisingly, pure hydrogen is the most efficient fuel for these devices but presents myriad problems associated with making it viable. For example, it is not readily available in nature but most often encountered in compounds in which hydrogen atoms chemically bond to one or more other elements.30 Separating those bonds takes energy, thereby decreasing the relative efficiencies of fuel cells. Furthermore, the processing, storing, and distributing of pure hydrogen is too difficult in the near term to become globally viable.31 As one writer puts it, “You don’t have a hydrogen pipeline coming to your house, and you can’t pull up to a hydrogen pump at your local gas station.”32 Pure hydrogen is simply difficult to obtain, and even when one has it, a great deal of pressure and volume is necessary to store it in order to reap the energy-to-weight efficiencies. Nevertheless, when manufactured renewably (e.g., solar power), pure hydrogen in a fuel cell creates a true zero-emission system, with only heat and water as by-products. In light of the difficulties associated with producing the element in its pure form, however, most fuel-cell developers turn to another alternative for their source of hydrogen.

Since the automotive industry is the primary developer, liquid hydrocarbons lead the way as fuel sources. In particular, much research involves using methanol, whose principal advantage is its similarity to gasoline and, hence, worldwide familiarity with its production, transportation, and distribution.33 Depending upon their source, liquid-hydrocarbon fuels can also become a renewable energy resource. Disadvantages include storage, corrosiveness, and fuel waste due to “crossover” in the fuel-cell membrane.34

Regular gasoline and ethanol are just two of the available liquid-hydrocarbon alternatives, but the need for “reformation” of the fuel prior to introduction into the fuel-cell system remains the constant among all liquid sources. The reforming process extracts hydrogen from the more complex molecular structures; however, the fact that carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide can become additional by-products of the energy-production cycle makes these systems less attractive.35 While the transportation industry focuses on liquid hydrocarbons, the stationary power-production industry is investigating natural gas as a source of hydrogen.

Most Americans are familiar with natural gas as an energy resource, especially for domestic applications. But few consumers are aware of its uses beyond heating and cooking purposes. As a potential source of hydrogen for fuel cells, natural gas boasts an established delivery infrastructure and significantly reduces greenhouse-gas emissions. Outside that established infrastructure, however, the need to compress natural gas and to use special dispensing equipment reduces its appeal as a source of hydrogen.36 Lastly, because natural gas is nonrenewable, reliance on it as a fuel offers meager benefits for long-term energy security. But another development promises to make natural gas the fuel of the twenty-first century.

Especially worthy of mention are methane hydrates. Methane is “the chief constituent of natural gas.”37 Although no consensus exists regarding the total amount of natural gas discovered and/or producible, one may assume a reasonable figure of 5,000 trillion cubic feet.38 Additionally, if the accuracy of the US Geological Survey of 1995 is within even one order of magnitude, the US portion of gas-hydrate reserves approaches 200,000 trillion cubic feet.39 Despite tremendous obstacles, if only a small fraction of these hydrates could be recovered in the form of usable gas, the potential for natural gas as a source of energy takes on staggering dimensions.40 As a source of fuel for fuel cells, this mother lode presents tremendous opportunities. Whether pure hydrogen, liquid hydrocarbons, or natural gas emerges as the primary source for fuel cells, the development of each is assured.

Scenario-Based Planning

The DOE maintains a division dedicated to hydrogen-fuels research. Within that division, the Hydrogen Technical Advisory Panel (HTAP) conducts scenario-based planning to envision possible hydrogen-fuel developments. In a conference held in 2001, the HTAP identified two main drivers for hydrogen development and proliferation: the rate of social concern and activism and the rate of hydrogen-technology development.41 The panel developed four quadrants and story lines from these drivers to address the DOE’s vision of a hydrogen-fuel-based society. Since the HTAP’s work focuses primarily on DOE-related issues rather than Air Force issues, the scenario story lines developed by the panel are not particularly useful for addressing the service’s concerns. But by using the HTAP’s drivers and the methodology described in the Air Force’s study Alternate Futures for 2025 (1996), one can derive four plausible fuel-cell worlds for the future (fig. 2).42

Figure 2. Fuel-cell world quadrants

Figure 2. Fuel-cell world quadrants

Quadrant A: Greenpeace

Greenpeace is a world characterized by increased awareness of global warming. The inhabitants of Greenpeace—situated at the axes of slow fuel-cell development and high social awareness—have taken to heart the destructive environmental effects brought on by mankind over the industrial age and early portion of the information age. Actively engaged in seeking to reduce greenhouse-gas production, Greenpeace has turned to several alternative forms of energy production to meet a still-increasing worldwide appetite for energy. 

Plausible History. In the Greenpeace world, social concerns drive energy alternatives. The success of the New Electric Car 5 (NECAR5) initiative prompts the development of NECAR6 (fig. 3).43 Publicity of the true costs of fossil fuels on the environment makes daily headlines.44 Although natural gas is a fossil fuel, the campaign promoting cleaner-burning fuels results in quick exploitation of vast reserves of methane hydrates on the US continental shelf in 2010.45 California’s lead in requiring zero-emission vehicles becomes a national model in 2015.46 By 2020 Air Force base realignment and closure activities result in the consolidation and closing of foreign-operated facilities. Each “superbase” is powered by stationary fuel cells, maintaining autonomy from the commercial power grid.47 Concerns over national greenhouse-gas emissions force the closure of the last coal-fired power plant in 2025. Advances in photovoltaics, geothermal energy, and wind-recovery ensure that alternative-energy production eclipses that of conventional fossil-fuel facilities.48 Greenpeace is marked by slow fuel-cell development as a variety of energy alternatives emerge in a socially aware world.

Figure 3. Greenpeace timeline

Figure 3. Greenpeace timeline

Capabilities. Fuel cells exist in society and the military; however, their proliferation is but one facet of the alternate-energy equation. In 2002, capacities of 3 MW of stationary power evolved but only to the point where it was economically feasible for government-sponsored organizations to take advantage of this capability. Because the majority of fuel-cell progress occurs in transportation, fuel cells can power nearly all forms of transportation. Nevertheless, fuel cells remain a niche market in external power production as other alternatives emerge.

Implications for the Air Force. In a Greenpeace world, environmental concerns affect operations tempo, basing, and training. To satisfy increasing societal awareness, the Air Force will have to adopt energy alternatives. Fuel cells can provide stationary power and meet stationary requirements for deployed forces. But a slow rate of technological development means that fuel cells will continue to fill only secondary roles. The Air Force’s fuel-cell investments will continue to leverage other government programs as well as commercial research and development.49 Finally, since the United States has not yet become self-reliant in terms of energy, it still expends vast sums of money protecting energy supplies.

Implications against the Air Force. Adversaries stand poised to take advantage of a Greenpeace world. Our historical indifference to environmental issues can be used against us in a major public-relations campaign directed at Air Force operations. As people worldwide become more socially active, we are apt to find ourselves objects of their ire. Furthermore, a global-environment movement that targets oil use holds danger for energy-producing alliance nations.

Critical Issues and Pathway. The Greenpeace scenario depends upon a dramatic increase in social awareness. How such awareness evolves becomes the key to getting to quadrant A. Assuredly, environmental groups will tout the benefits of fuel cells while decrying the destructive effects of traditional fuel sources. What causes this message finally to take hold may come from one of several sources. First, many countries are more “green” oriented than the United States. If our position in the world diminishes in the coming decades, those external views may become more prominent. Second, as members of a younger, more environmentally conscientious generation mature, their message may begin to take hold as they move into leadership positions. Additionally, if record warm-weather patterns continue, even detractors of global-warming theories may concede that fossil fuels adversely affect the environment. Finally, local, state, and federal governments may lead the environmental cause. The mandating and subsidizing of environmental issues may generate increased social awareness. Fuel-cell technology may make noticeable gains, but without increased social awareness, a pathway to Greenpeace is not possible.

Quadrant B: Fuelcellville

In Fuelcellville high social concerns and a fast rate of fuel-cell technology development converge. Fuel-cell capabilities advance rapidly as nations and corporations eagerly seek alternatives to fossil fuels. As technology development overcomes storage and distribution barriers, economies of scale allow wide proliferation of fuel-cell technology. 

Plausible History. The DOE’s hydrogen program succeeds in obtaining a massive infusion of federal dollars in 2005 (fig. 4).50 Social activism brought on by the election of 2008 results in a government mandate that all federal vehicles be powered by direct-methanol fuel cells by 2010. In 2012 the demand for oil exceeds supply, raising the cost of a barrel of oil to $100 and pump prices to five dollars per gallon in 2015.51 Advances in stationary fuel-cell power result in the Fuel Cell Proclamation Act of 2020 whereby all government facilities are removed from the power grid and fed by fuel cells. Lower Heating Value efficiencies reach 95 percent in 2025.52 Fuel-cell technology permeates all four corners of the globe, resulting in a true hydrogen economy and absolute, worldwide distributed power by 2030.53

Figure 4. Fuelcellville timeline

Figure 4. Fuelcellville timeline

Capabilities. Fuel cells are adopted as the primary means of power production. Society becomes truly all-electric as fossil fuels are abandoned in favor of the rapid development of hydrogen-fuel technology. Portable fuel cells become as common as AA alkaline batteries. The internal-combustion engine goes the way of the covered wagon because vehicles powered by fuel cells meet all cost and performance requirements. Lastly, stationary fuel cells achieve remarkable efficiencies, and a movement away from centrally based power production to distributed power production becomes standard.

Implications for the Air Force. In Fuelcellville the Air Force will likely remain at the forefront of the transition from petroleum to hydrogen-based fuels. Large-scale government investment will allow the service to field state-of-the-art fuel-cell equipment, thus decreasing the logistical footprint of deploying forces and reducing overall airlift requirements.54 The increased reliability associated with electrical versus mechanical equipment means the Air Force will need far fewer maintainers in active service. Effects-based strategy needs to evolve from slogan to practice. Fuelcellville does not diminish the military option; it just transforms how it is powered.

Implications against the Air Force. The transition from oil-based to hydrogen-based societies may cause increased tensions in the Middle East. As oil revenues decrease, peacekeeping requirements will likely increase. The primary source of regional conflict will likely shift from petroleum resources to water rights.55 Distributed power generation worldwide forces a fundamental reassessment of Air Force doctrine. The production of electrical energy is no longer considered a center of gravity because there are simply too many energy facilities. Instead, storage and distribution networks gain increased strategic and operational importance. Finally, in Fuelcellville the increased dependence on electronics and electronic controls increases the vulnerability of Air Force equipment to electromagnetic pulses. Without electromagnetically hardened equipment, everything from transportation to information is subject to disruption.

Crucial Issues and Pathway. The path to Fuelcellville presents the double challenge of increased social awareness and increased technology. Besides the environmental concerns, key technological hurdles must also be cleared. First among these is the efficiency of fuel cells. In the transportation industry, if cars powered by these devices can overcome problems associated with fuel storage, safety, and supply infrastructure, fuel cells will begin to move from government-led efforts to the mainstream. Second, fuel cells cannot achieve widespread public acceptance until they become commercially and economically viable. Government investment must bridge the development costs to true commercial viability and then advertise the successes to encourage new customers and investors to continue.56 Without an engaged public or three to four technological leaps, establishment of a pathway to quadrant B becomes less likely.

Quadrant C: For a Price

Characterized by low social activism and high technological development, the For a Price world presents fuel-cell opportunities to those who can afford it—namely governments and government-supported industries. While most Americans remain apathetic to decreasing fossil-fuel supplies and deteriorating environmental conditions, other countries—most notably Iceland, Germany, Singapore, and Japan—make rapid advancements in fuel-cell development. The US government and its departments capitalize on these advantages, primarily in the military arena, but overall costs compared to those for fossil fuels keep fuel cells from breaking into the mainstream.

Plausible History. In 2005 the Air and Space Expeditionary Force (AEF) Battlelab’s early work on the Common Core Power Production spawns the first full AEF deployment of support equipment wholly powered by fuel cells (fig. 5).57 In 2010 solar-cell efficiencies allow the Air Force to test the first fuel-cell-powered UAV.58 The California and New York energy-deregulation experiments of 2000–05 fail miserably, resulting in enactments of government-subsidy programs. To advance additional research, industry leaders switch to a fuel-cell infrastructure for stationary-power distribution in 2015. By 2020 the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) reaps the benefits of member-nation research and adopts PEM fuel-cell standards for all ground-transportation vehicles.59 The year 2025 marks the first anniversary of Project Endure—the successful, continuous operation of a fuel-cell-powered UAV.60 With 176 nation-state signatories to the Kyoto protocols in 2012, fuel cells and other alternative technologies advance rapidly. However, since the Middle East and South America still supply 90 percent of the world’s oil without interruption or price fluctuations, fuel-cell benefits remain limited to those customers outside the main power grid and other niche markets.61 Not until 2030 do fuel-cell costs per kW of energy produced break the $1,000 barrier.62 Fuel cells have been available over the past three decades; however, cost has prevented their introduction into mainstream commercial markets.

Figure 5. For a Price timeline

Figure 5. For a Price timeline

Capabilities. Fuel-cell technology makes advances in portable, mobile, and stationary markets. However, American social pacifism prevents widespread concern or desire for environmentally friendly alternatives to fossil fuels. Accordingly, capabilities exist but only to those who can afford them. The US government sees utility in fuel cells and incorporates those technologies into specific military applications that require reliability and persistence. Adoption of common fuel standards for fuel cells allows more concentrated development, which nevertheless remains outside US influence. 

Implications for the Air Force. The Air Force recognizes that fuel-cell development will not occur without government-led efforts. Even though rapid technological developments will not replace jet fuel in aircraft, the service still needs to capitalize on advances made by other countries in unique mission applications. Specifically, support equipment and UAVs are ripe for fuel-cell proliferation. UAVs powered by these devices allow for spacelike capabilities in persistence with substantially reduced costs.63 Benefits to the logistical tail run the gamut from maintenance to supply. With fuel-cell-technology applications primarily confined to governments, the Air Force stands to have a significant unilateral benefit in this scenario.

Implications against the Air Force. Until costs become competitive with conventional power production, fuel-cell usage is likely to remain confined to governments that can afford them. Because those governments tend to be democratic and because of increasing globalization, fuel cells offer the potential for greater national security. For our adversaries who take advantage of fuel cells in the For a Price scenario, distributed power assumes key importance. Energy infrastructure loses its desirability as a target. But if such targets are in fact attacked, the potential for collateral damage may well exceed the expected payoff or desired strategic effect. As a result, fuel cells become a means to achieve strategic ends against the United States.

Crucial Issues and Pathway. To realize a For a Price world, similar technical breakthroughs to Fuelcellville must occur. Those advancements are likely to come through government involvement because initial costs prevent extensive proliferation. However, the crucial issue in quadrant C remains social apathy. Diverse interests and attitudes keep Americans and the rest of the world largely uninvolved. America is often categorized as a “throwaway” society. Whether their attitude is based in fact or perception, the American public considers the country’s environmental policy largely “window dressing” rather than an effective plan. We consume most of the world’s energy, yet we comprise less than 5 percent of the planet’s population. Our reluctance to engage in environmental negotiations gives rise to world acrimony. Our affluence can make us indifferent to problems beyond our own borders. Additionally, rising nations—be they industrial or informational—spurn environmentally imposed mandates by citing the need for immediate progress rather than long-term effects. Finally, debate continues over the extent to which existing technologies affect the environment; this, in turn, delays the reaching of consensus in addressing problems on a global scale. As long as overall social apathy exists, fuel-cell developments are unlikely to transform the worldwide energy picture. 

Quadrant D: SOS (Same Old Stuff)

SOS is a world not too different from the one we live in today, distinguished by a low rate of social activism and low fuel-cell development. Research on alternative-energy technologies remains a minuscule portion of the federal budget. Indifference to the modest 1o C rise in global temperatures over the past three decades has only furthered global-warming debates. Fossil-fuel usage continues as the primary source of energy. Tensions over access to energy sources require continued US defense involvement around the world.

Plausible History. As the federal deficit exceeds $7 trillion, a Balanced Budget Amendment passes in 2005, causing cuts throughout government (fig. 6). Notable among these is the cancellation of all DOE hydrogen projects.64 Oil-industry leaders, in cooperation with the Russian government, explore the vast Siberian region. An oil find estimated at 10 trillion barrels is announced in 2010.65 The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries responds by increasing production, causing gasoline prices to drop to 50 cents per gallon. In 2015 scientists in Antarctica report that the ozone hole has closed. In contrast to global-warming theories, the apparent cause is tied more to the 1980s ban on chlorofluorocarbons than on greenhouse-gas emissions. The Joint Strike Fighter achieves initial operational capability in 2020 and introduces JP-10 as the fuel standard. Not only does JP-10 meet all engine-performance requirements, but also its energy content is so high and flash point so low that it becomes the standard for auxiliary-power production.66 By 2025 the Army’s transformation process is complete, and a demonstration using a soda-can-sized fuel cell powers an office for one week.67 Further demonstrations lead to the building of a blimp for the modern age—the Hindenburg II—powered solely by fuel cells. However, in 2030 a freak accident reminiscent of the one that destroyed the dirigible’s namesake keeps fuel-cell technology confined to niche markets.68

Figure 6. SOS timeline

Figure 6. SOS timeline

Capabilities. Fuel cells remain novelty items for most of the population. Like the progress of conventional battery technology in the last half of the twentieth century, fuel-cell efficiencies make only modest gains. Automobile makers offer fuel-cell alternative cars, but their range and refueling requirements make them less attractive than vehicles equipped with internal-combustion engines. Stationary fuel-cell power generation remains cost prohibitive to all but the most isolated or ecologically minded. The impending oil shortage never materializes, and fuel cells, as well as other energy alternatives, remain on the sidelines.

Implications for and against the Air Force. SOS is perhaps the most recognizable yet most dangerous of all the worlds discussed here. The Air Force can be expected to maintain the status quo relative to other nations. No impetus for revolutionary change exists. The notion of transformation or effects-based targeting has the potential to become the next “quality” movement—a mere slogan for each new service chief. Our dependency on foreign oil never wanes. Danger lurks around the globe as other countries make advances in alternative-energy sources and seek alliances based on assured-energy access. How we choose to respond will affect our vision and strategy for decades to come. SOS lives up to its name.

Crucial Issues and Pathway. Since there is little debate that American society currently resides in quadrant D, remaining there means doing little that is different. The critical issue here is research and development. If government and private funding remains at levels similar to those of today, advances in fuel-cell technology are likely to do no more than creep ahead. In addition, myopic environmental reviews both inside and outside government prevent anything beyond grassroots efforts from flourishing. Although the United States might remain within SOS, there is no guarantee that the remainder of the world will do so. It is conceivable that multiple pathways can coexist. Nevertheless, without a combination of social activism and technological advances, transition from fossil-based to hydrogen-based fuels is unlikely.

Future Issues and Applications

Despite claims to the contrary, predicting the future is an inexact art. Each of the fuel-cell worlds considered here can occur, but it is unlikely that any one will unfold exactly as outlined. They do have certain crucial issues in common, however. Specifically, the world’s response to the impending oil crisis, whether it occurs 10, 20, or even 100 years from now, will define our energy future. Additionally, whether global society responds to environmental concerns now or delays decisions until some indeterminate future will characterize our willingness to accept short-term gains in deference to long-term effects. These two issues underscore fuel-cell development and proliferation.

The utility of the four future worlds lies not in their predictive value, but in preparing others to think of the possible. Many acquisition decisions made today do not bear fruit for war fighters for years to come. We have the option of behaving either proactively or reactively. By understanding what is possible, we can take positive steps to prepare for the future.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, fuel cells have now been installed at 30 Department of Defense locations.69 To begin a movement from SOS to any other quadrant, the Air Force must become part of government-led efforts to change to alternative-energy methods. Current fuel-cell technology is too immature and cost prohibitive for pure private-sector development. Through government efforts, fuel cells can move out of the laboratory and onto Main Street, USA.

Additionally, anticipating how adversaries might use this technology remains fundamental to any evolution of our strategy. The Air Force should start preparing now for adaptation and response to fuel-cell-powered societies. Do we continue to target energy infrastructure, as we have done in nearly every conflict since World War II? How do we interdict energy supply lines when the main fuel is not petroleum-based but gaseous, producible in the field, and not under the control of relatively few governments? Do we aid developing nations by allowing them to leapfrog our own industrial mistakes and powering them with sustained energy? These and numerous other questions demand flexibility in our strategy. The Air Force should consider the following steps in order to retain this flexibility:

1. Increase funding in hydrogen technology.

2. Exploit developments made in other government and private sectors.

3. Take risks and rapidly transition technologies in the most promising arenas of both manned and unmanned air vehicles.

4. Increase the percentage of bases powered by alternative-energy sources.

5. Develop war-game scenarios based on the proliferation of fuel cells by both the United States and its adversaries.

Because fuel cells have powerful implications for the military and the world, we must be ready to deal with them.

Fossil fuels cannot sustain the planet’s energy appetite indefinitely. Continued access to these resources means additional expense on our part in terms of finances and possible loss of life in defending them. If we are to become what Michio Kaku calls a type-one civilization in this third modern millennium, we must look beyond fossil fuels for our primary energy sources.70

Fuel-cell technology is fundamentally sound although it faces many challenging obstacles in the years ahead to achieve its potential. Whether these devices remain curiosities or infuse themselves into the mainstream is yet to be determined. The path to any of the future worlds discussed here is certainly not preordained. However, if we wish to continue to progress, we must begin to capitalize now on what Los Alamos National Laboratory dubs a “once in a lifetime opportunity”: fuel cells.71 


1. Kenneth F. Deffeyes, Hubert’s Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, October 2001), i.

2. A National Security Strategy for a Global Age (Washington, DC: The White House, December 2000), 34.

3. The National Security Strategy of the United States of America (Washington, DC: The White House, September 2002), 19–20.

4. Department of Energy, http://www.eia.doe.gov/ oiaf/ieor (accessed April 7, 2002).

5. Ibid.

6. Geohive, http://www.geohive.com/charts/energy_ oilres.php (accessed February 28, 2002).

7. Deffeyes, Hubert’s Peak, i.

8. Geohive.

9. Review of Deffeyes, Hubert’s Peak, http://www. amazon.com (accessed April 7, 2002).

10. Carol Werner, “Fuel Cell Fact Sheet,” Environmental and Energy Study Institute, February 2000, http://www.eesi.org/publications/02.00fuelcell.pdf, 1 (accessed March 15, 2002).

11. Alan Leo, “Fuel Cells in Brief,” Technology Review, February 5, 2002, http://www.technologyreview.com/ articles/wo_leo020502.asp, 2 (accessed February 11, 2002).

12. Ibid.

13. Karim Nice, “How Fuel Cells Work,” in Marshall Brian, HowStuffWorks, http://www.howstuffworks.com/ fuel-cell.htm, 2 (accessed January 31, 2002).

14. Sharon Thomas and Marcia Zalbowitz, Fuel Cells: Green Power, Los Alamos National Laboratory, http:// education.lanl.gov/resources/fuelcells/fuelcells.pdf, 4 (accessed March 3, 2002).

15. Ibid., 7.

16. Werner, “Fuel Cell Fact Sheet,” 1.

17. Thomas and Zalbowitz, Fuel Cells, 27.

18. Werner, “Fuel Cell Fact Sheet,” 2.

19. Ibid., 3.

20. Peter Hoffman, Tomorrow’s Energy: Hydrogen, Fuel Cells, and the Prospectus for a Cleaner Planet (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), 156–57.

21. Steven Ashley, “Fuel Cell Phones: Portable Power from Fuel Cells Inches Along,” Scientific American, July 2001, http://www.sciam.com/2001/0701issue/0701scicit4. html, 2 (accessed January 31, 2002).

22. David Voss, “A Fuel Cell in Your Phone,” Technology Review, no. 9 (November 2001): 69.

23. Ibid., 70.

24. Quoted in Charles Wardell, “Dreams of the New Power Grid,” Popular Science 260, no. 3 (March 2002): 62. 

25. Ballard Power Systems, http://www.ballard.com (accessed April 7, 2002).

26. US Department of Transportation, Vision 2020: An Integrated National Transportation System, February 2001, http://scitech.dot.gov, 7 (accessed March 16, 2002).

27. Werner, “Fuel Cell Fact Sheet,” 2.

28. “Boeing to Explore Electric Airplane,” Boeing Company news release, November 27, 2001, http://www. boeing.com/news/releases/2001/q4/nr_011127a.html (accessed January 31, 2002).

29. Thomas Reitz, Air Force Research Laboratory, Propulsion Directorate, Wright-Patterson AFB, OH, telephone interview by the author, March 27, 2002. Subsequent electronic message contained unpublished paper and briefing.

30. Nice, “How Fuel Cells Work,” 3.

31. Thomas and Zalbowitz, Fuel Cells, 19.

32. Nice, “How Fuel Cells Work,” 3.

33. Thomas and Zalbowitz, Fuel Cells, 17.

34. Ibid.

35. Ibid., 19.

36. Ibid.

37. US Department of Energy, Office of Fossil Energy, “Methane Hydrates,” http://www.fe.doe.gov/programs/ oilgas/hydrates, 1 (March 11, 2002).

38. US Department of Energy, table, http://www. eia.doe.gov/emeu/iea/table81.html (accessed April 7, 2002).

39. US Department of Energy, “Methane Hydrates,” 2.

40. Ibid.

41. Jim Ohi, “Enhancing Strategic Management of the Hydrogen Option: Scenario Planning by the DOE Hydrogen Technical Advisory Panel” (proceedings of the 2001 DOE Hydrogen Program Review), 3.

42. Joseph A. Engelbrecht Jr. et al., Alternate Futures for 2025 (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, September 1996), 9–17.

43. See United Press International, “Bush Views Hybrid Vehicles,” http://www.home.knology.net/news. cfm?id=1362 (accessed February 25, 2002), for speculation about future proliferation of fuel-cell vehicles.

44. See “Benefits of Fuel Cell Transportation,” http://www.fuelcells.org/fct/benefits.htm (February 21, 2002), for a statement that for every gallon of gasoline manufactured, distributed, and consumed, roughly 25 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) is released.

45. Natural-gas consumption in the United States will increase to more than 32 trillion cubic feet by 2020. US Department of Energy, “Methane Hydrates,” 2.

46. By 2003 10 percent of vehicles must be of the zero-emission type. Extrapolated to 2015, the number comes to approximately 100,000. Thomas and Zalbowitz, Fuel Cells, 29.

47. See Ballard Power Systems for predictions concerning the capacity of stationary fuel cells.

48. See “Power Till the Cows Come Home,” National Geographic 201, no. 4 (April 2002): xxiii–xxiv, for information about unused wind capacity worldwide.

49. Briefing, Col Al Janiszewski, US Air Force Research Laboratory, Propulsion Directorate, Wright-Patterson AFB, OH, to EL-636 class, March 11, 2002. Research dollars for fuel-cell work are localized within the directorate.

50. See Ohi, “Enhancing Strategic Management,” 11, for HTAP recommendations for future investment.

51. See review of Deffeyes, Hubert’s Peak, for speculation about Hubert’s Peak coming to fruition and consequences for worldwide oil prices.

52. See Joseph Fellner, Air Force Research Laboratory, Propulsion Directorate, Wright-Patterson AFB, OH, interview by colleague Dr. Thomas Reitz, March 27, 2002; and idem, briefing, “Fuel Cells for Persistent Area Dominance (PAD) Concept,” chart 10, January 15, 2002, for speculation about increased efficiencies in out-years.

53. See Hoffman, Tomorrow’s Energy, 247–64, for six scenarios that converge on hydrogen proliferation.

54. Thomas J. Piro, Common Core Power Production (C2P2), written for Air and Space Expeditionary Force Battlelab, November 15, 2001, contract no. F19628-98-C-0067, p. 23, par. 3-3: “The reduced size and weight of a PEM fuel cell will reduce the airlift requirements for a deployed air expeditionary force.”

55. “Observers say that by 2025, 48 countries will be severely short of water and half the people on earth will not have access to clean supplies. I can promise that if there is not sufficient water in our region . . . we shall doubtless face war.” Paul Welsh, “Water Wars: Part I—The Middle East,” http://news.bbc.co-uk/hi/english/ world/middle_east/newsid_677000/677547.stm (accessed April 12, 2002).

56. Ohi, “Enhancing Strategic Management,” 5.

57. See ibid., 8, par. 2-3, for the author’s speculation about the first AEF fielded with fuel cells.

58. See Fellner briefing, charts 30–31, for information about future efficiencies of UAVs.

59. See M. J. Bradley and Associates, “Future Wheels: Interviews with 44 Global Experts on the Future of Fuel Cells for Transportation and Fuel Cell Infrastructure and a Fuel Cell Primer,” November 1, 2000, submitted to Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for agreement, no. NAVC 1099-PG030044, iv–v, for debate on which fuel is the most likely hydrogen-fuel source of the future.

60. See Fellner briefing, charts 30–31, for information about future efficiencies. 

61. See Geohive, charts on energy statistics, http:// www.geohive.com/charts (accessed April 6, 2002), for predictions concerning oil-supply locations through 2020.

62. See Wardell, “Dreams of the New Power Grid,” 62, for quotation by Bos on fuel-cell costs futures.

63. See Fellner briefing, charts 25–31, for information about future capabilities.

64. See Ohi, “Enhancing Strategic Management,” 11, for speculation by the author on where future cuts may occur.

65. See Tom Clancy’s novel The Bear and the Dragon (New York: Berkley Books, 2000), 64–65, for speculation about finding a massive oil field in the Siberian plains.

66. See Janiszewski briefing for speculation about the future of propulsion technology.

67. David Mulholland, “Fuel Cells Could Enhance Military Capabilities,” Army Times 59, no. 54 (June 7, 1999): 24.

68. Thomas and Zalbowitz, Fuel Cells, 26. The original Hindenburg did not explode just because of hydrogen gas. The dirigible’s cotton fabric had been treated with acetate and nitrate (gunpowder); the combination was highly flammable.

69. “Fuel Cells,” U. S. Department of Energy, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, April 22, 2003, http://www.eere. energy.gov/hydrogenandfuelcells/fuelcells/stationary_ power.html.

70. Michio Kaku, Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century (New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1997), 323.

71. Thomas and Zalbowitz, Fuel Cells, 34.


Lt Col David P. Blanks (USAFA; MBA, University of Phoenix; MS, Air Force Institute of Technology; MMOAS, Air Command and Staff College) is chief of the Transformation Integration Branch, Headquarters United States Air Forces in Europe, Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Colonel Blanks previously served as deputy commander, Cadet Group 2, and as air officer commanding, Cadet Squadron 4, at the US Air Force Academy, as well as flight commander, Analysis, 17th Test Squadron, Schriever AFB, Colorado.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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