COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — On the outside, it looks like a sporty version of a mid-sized Chevrolet pickup.
But the Army has little interest in its camouflage-chic paint job, its custom wheels or its knobby tires. The Army wants what’s under the hood. It is not a motor.
Meet the hydrogen-powered ZH-2, an experimental truck built by General Motors and recently tested by the Army at Fort Carson. It has no pistons, no cylinders. Instead it has a space-age fuel cell crammed under the hood that turns pure hydrogen into electricity to run the rig and water vapor that surges out its exhaust.
“One of the things you notice is how quiet it is,” GM’s Chris Colquitt, the lead engineer behind the truck as the ZH-2 quietly whirred behind him.
The fuel cell has essentially no moving parts. It works like a battery that never runs flat because a constant flow of hydrogen and atmospheric oxygen keeps the juice flowing.
The Army has long coveted the technology because it brings a combination of desperately-needed fuel efficiency and near-silent operation to the battlefield.
The American military is the world’s largest consumer of diesel fuel, running up a tab at the pump as high as $13 billion per year.
In battle, fuel costs go up astronomically. Pentagon officials told Congress in 2009 that diesel fuel at remote locations in Afghanistan runs more than $400 per gallon when transportation costs are added in.
Brian Butrico, an Army engineer overseeing the ZH-2 said the fuel cell sips fuel at less than half the rate of a Humvee. And unlike Army trucks that guzzle fuel while idling, the fuel cell shuts down.
“The feedback is positive so far,” he said.
Hydrogen used to power the truck isn’t something you can pick up at the neighborhood 7-Eleven. To go along with the truck, Butrico’s colleagues at the Army Tank and Automotive Research and Development Center in Michigan are building a “reformer” that can produce the hydrogen by refining other easily-available fuels.
The hydrogen-maker will be about the size of an Army trailer and could be hauled straight to the battlefield to fuel next-generation rigs.
Butrico said the utility of the fuel cell goes far beyond vehicles.
One of the military’s biggest gas-guzzlers overseas is the generator. At the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Army generators at forward bases converted 357 million gallons of diesel into electricity and ear-splitting noise each year.
In Baghdad, soldiers could determine their proximity to an American base by listening for the generators’ roar.
A fuel cell could kill the noise and cut the fuel consumption by half or more, the Army estimates.
The ZH-2’s fuel cell generates about 50 kilowatts of power that can be fed into its hulking electric motor or fed to other equipment thanks to handy power outlets in the bed.
“It’s the electrification of a vehicle,” Butrico explained.
The ZH-2 is no tree-hugging Tesla, though. It weighs in at more than 3 tons and its electric motor produces a transmission-shredding 256 pounds of torque, politely managed by several internal computers.
For its girth, the truck is surprisingly nimble, gliding easily over Fort Carson’s tank trails and gullies.
For all its charm, though, the ZH-2 will never wear Army green into battle.
The truck is an experiment designed to examine the fuel cell itself rather than the sheet metal and drive train around it.
Colquitt said GM engineers put the truck together in about a year by marrying the car maker’s experimental fuel cell to parts from several vehicles in its stable. The one-of-a-kind ZH-2 is about a quarter Chevy Colorado, part Camaro, part Corvette and part Volt, too.
The fuel cell itself was used in a wider consumer market experiment based on the Chevrolet Equinox, a vehicle commonly spotted on the sidelines of youth soccer games.
“We’ve pushed the boundary with this,” Colquitt said of the ZH-2.
The ultra-green pickup could be the progenitor for generations of hydrogen powered military vehicles.