WARREN, MI – The U.S. Army and General Motors announce Monday the start of hydrogen fuel-cell testing at the Army’s new Ground Systems Power and Energy Laboratory in suburban Detroit.

The agreement is aimed at cutting development costs for both sides as the U.S. searches to cut its reliance on petroleum as a fuel source. The two organizations will share lab technology and common equipment as they strive to improve fuel-cell technology.

Officials at the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center here say they are most interested initially in using fuel cells as auxiliary power sources for military ground vehicles and robot systems because they are fuel-efficient and quiet. Military vehicles spend lots of time in idle mode both in and out of combat situations, a source here says. “Quietness is really important,” he adds.

Batteries can be used to power key vehicle systems while waiting to spring into action, but they run down quickly and take hours to recharge. Fuel cells also are quiet, but they can be refueled with hydrogen to full power in just minutes.

Earlier this year GM announced an agreement with Honda to co-develop a next-generation fuel- cell system and hydrogen storage technologies, targeting a 2020 time frame. The collaboration targets sharing expertise, economies of scale and common sourcing strategies.

GM and Honda rank No.1 and No.2, respectively, in fuel-cell patents filed between 2002 and 2012, with more than 1,200 between them.

GM was an early leader in fuel-cell development activities during the first part of the last decade, once predicting it would have thousands of fuel-cell powered vehicles on the road by 2010. However, a hydrogen-refueling infrastructure never materialized and government and industry interest shifted from hydrogen to battery-electric vehicles after the 2008 presidential election.

Now concerns are being raised about the long-term limitations of BEVs, and hydrogen-powered fuel cells are moving back into the spotlight, because they can provide greater range than EVs and be refueled in minutes instead of hours.

GM still has the largest fuel-cell test fleet in the industry. It has 119 hydrogen-powered Chevrolet Equinoxes that have racked up about 100,000 test miles (161,000 km) each.

Charles Freese, executive director-Global Fuel Cell Activities at GM, tells WardsAuto on the sidelines that cost and lack of a hydrogen-refueling infrastructure remain the key obstacles to putting fuel-cell vehicles on the road.

GM’s collaborations with Honda and the Army are aimed at developing more technical standards and standardized parts that will create greater economies of scale, Freese says.

The testing agreement with TARDEC is part of a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement established between federal laboratories and commercial, academic or nonprofit partners to facilitate technology transfer.

dwinter@wardsauto.com