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Breaking: ECars on the Battlefield; US Army Testing Hydrogen-Powered Chevy ZH2

Army Testing Prototype Truck That May Find Use on the Battlefield

Photos by Robert McGaffin

Chevrolet announced today the U.S. Military will begin a yearlong, extreme field test of its prototype ZH2 truck. Unveiled last year, the ZH2 is one of the latest concept vehicles created by General Motors powered by hydrogen technology.

GM has more than a decade of experience collaborating on fuel-cell research demonstration programs with the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC), an organization focused on ground-vehicle applications for the U.S. Army. TARDEC takes possession of the truck on April 10, 2017.

“TARDEC used a number of our Equinox fuel-cell vehicles dating back to 2007. They’re looking at all kinds of equipment and technology to see the potential of what will ultimately end up in the warfighters’ hands in terms of equipment, and fuel cells are one of those technologies that has a lot of promise,” says Chris Colquitt, senior engineering manager for the ZH2.

The Electrovan was the world's first hydrogen power fuel cell vehicle. Photo courtesy GM.

The Electrovan, which looks a lot like the Mystery Machine, was the world's first hydrogen power fuel cell vehicle. Photo courtesy GM.

Hydrogen technology is actually nothing new for GM. You can trace its history back to the 1966 Electrovan, the first vehicle utilizing hydrogen as a fuel source. Refinements have continued on a variety of platforms ever since. In fact, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory is also working with GM to create unmanned undersea vehicles using the same technology as the ZH2. Aerospace is another area that developments using hydrogen fuel cells are currently taking place.

Previously, a fleet of more than 100 hydrogen fuel cell Equinoxes, Chevy’s small crossover utility vehicle, were created and given to various user groups to test the technology in real-world situations with real-world drivers. Although the program ended in 2010, a few of them are still on the road and some ran for more than 140,000 miles.

“The fleet amassed over 3-million miles and that’s what gave the confidence for GM and the Army to see that it’s suitable for further evaluations. The natural progression was to see where the technology could take us with an off-road vehicle,” says Colquitt. “TARDEC was looking to test the vehicle in a capable off-road package to see the suitability of the technology to put into future vehicle platforms.”

About two years ago, GM and TARDEC started talking about the idea of what was possible for an off-road fuel cell vehicle to evaluate. In about 16 months, GM came up with the ZH2 as an evaluation vehicle and it's currently the only one of its kind.

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The ZH2 utilizes the same Gen 0 fuel cell system as the Equinox fleet. Unlike a traditional engine, it has no cylinders and displacement/power isn’t measured in cubic inches or centimeters. It’s measured in terms of kilowatt output, and the ZH2’s power system is rated at 93 kilowatts of DC power. An onboard hybrid battery provides an additional 35 kilowatts.

The platform the ZH2 is built on is actually a slightly modified Colorado ZR2 chassis. Body panels are Kevlar-reinforced carbon fiber to keep weight down. Inside, the dash layout is basically the same as a Colorado with Recaro racing seats.

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The hydrogen is stored in tanks as compressed gas. Combined with oxygen in the outside air, the fuel cell stack converts hydrogen into the electricity that powers the drive system and your other traditional accessories: water pump, alternator, air conditioner, etc. There are no emissions, except for near-potable water vapor, which can be trapped and stored on the vehicle if need be.

The ZH2 has an exportable power source in the trunk, which can take the DC fuel cell power and convert it over to 240- and 120-volt AC power. The unit can be used as a mobile generator to make 25 to 50 kilowatts of exportable electricity. This can be used to power any equipment that might be needed out in the field. The vehicle’s low heat signature is another advantage for military applications. In terms of noise, the ZH2 is on par with a hybrid, so the reduced sound output is also beneficial for field use and something that conventional vehicles can’t offer.

“A fuel cell is about twice as efficient as a combustion engine. For every gallon equivalent of hydrogen you put in your fuel cell vehicle’s tank, you’d end up going twice as far on that gallon,” Colquitt says.

You may very well be looking at the future of transportation and commercial sale of this kind of technology could happen as early as 2020. GM’s manufacturing joint venture with Honda will begin mass-producing fuel cells around that time.

As a fuel, there’s a ton of work going on to see what hydrogen’s capabilities are and as renewables start to take the place of hydrocarbons, it could be a major player, but don’t expect to see hydrogen pumping stations to replace gas stations soon. It could take decades, but the work is being done, and this is a glimpse of what major automakers like Chevrolet have cooking.

Look for a full feature on the Chevy ZH2 in a future issue of RECOIL magazine.

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