With the rise of clean energy and sustainability, various sectors worldwide are considering how they can reduce their carbon footprint. One such sector is the military, specifically the Bundeswehr (German Armed Forces), aiming to achieve climate neutrality by 2045. With this transition, hydrogen fuel cell technology emerges as a crucial factor, with implications that extend far beyond environmental friendliness.
Karsten Pinkwart, a scientist at the Fraunhofer Institute and professor at Karlsruhe University of Applied Sciences, views the marriage of a hydrogen fuel cell and a lithium battery as an ideal power combination for military tanks. The current diesel-powered Leopard main battle tank is hard to conceal from enemy troops due to its thermal signature, noise, and exhaust fumes. However, a hydrogen fuel cell’s stealth capabilities provide a tactically superior alternative. Hydrogen fuel cells produce water as exhaust gas, have no moving parts, and emit no thermal signature, offering tactical advantages for the military.
The Bundeswehr has depended on diesel and gasoline for its vehicles, posing a substantial risk, as highlighted by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, where the raw materials are predominantly controlled by despots. A shift towards green energy becomes strategically crucial and potentially militarily necessary, reducing reliance on fossil fuels and making the armed forces more defensible, as suggested by Stefan Bavarian, head of the German Institute for Defence and Strategic Studies (Gids).
However, a green transformation isn’t without challenges. Currently, NATO adheres to a “single-fuel strategy” for easy supply across all systems, including an underground pipeline system for the said fuel. Shifting to a greener alternative like hydrogen or electric power would mean dealing with unprecedented logistical challenges. There’s also the issue of hydrogen’s low energy density in terms of volume, which would require more complex storage and transportation.
Nevertheless, progress is being made. The Bundeswehr’s successful operation of photovoltaic and wind power plants in Mali and Niger, which saved 450,000 liters of diesel per year, demonstrates the viability of renewable energy sources in the military sector.
However, a crucial factor to consider is the civilian infrastructure on which the armed forces rely. As civilian structures shift towards green technologies, the military will inevitably have to adapt. As such, the Bundeswehr’s potential move towards hydrogen could be expedited if their vehicle bases, like the Unimog small truck from Daimler Truck, are only offered with hydrogen combustion engines.
In light of these considerations, the timeline for a complete transition to non-fossil fuels is estimated to take 30 to 40 years, according to Gids head Bayer. The transition will likely entail an energy mix rather than a singular solution, and the Bundeswehr must begin its green conversion now.
While challenges persist, there is a clear opportunity for the Bundeswehr to become a technology driver. By generating marketable demand, the Bundeswehr, like the American army, can push forward hydrogen production. This initial investment in hydrogen could be used to produce synthetic fuels (e-fuels), with hydrogen used directly in the fuel cell at a later stage.
Transitioning to hydrogen fuel cells presents a robust, tactically advantageous, and environmentally friendly solution for military tanks. As the world grapples with the challenges posed by climate change, even sectors like the military must explore sustainable solutions, with the Bundeswehr’s potential transition a case study in progress.