Scientists at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory say they have developed the first system to convert dirty diesel fuel into a quiet, self-contained and efficient energy source.
The system is the product of six years of research and a $25 million joint effort between the Office of Naval Research and fuel-cell company SOFCo-EFS.
In the future, the Navy's destroyers could run quieter, require half the fuel, pollute less and have a smaller heat signature for enemies to detect.
The system converts diesel fuel into a 30 percent hydrogen mixture. By using the diesel to run a fuel cell instead of burning it, the system produces twice the energy output, without sulfur or nitrous oxide pollution.
About two weeks ago, the experimental system started running a 5-kilowatt fuel cell.
"We see this as the start of a new technology that will greatly improve on where we are today," said Rodger McKain, president of SOFCo-EFS, a fuel-cell company that split the project's cost with the U.S. Navy.
"It could help make stealthier ships," said Mark Cervi, power generation coordinator for the Navy.
The military will decide in two years whether it will fund a prototype system for a new class of destroyers, which are scheduled to start being built in 10 years.
Although the process of getting hydrogen from diesel is not new, it has never been done before on such a large scale.
It is also the only system specifically designed to run on high-sulfur content diesel, which the Navy can buy around the world.
The technology could be installed anywhere people want to have quiet, self-contained energy systems instead of diesel generators.
Dennis Witmer, a technology specialist at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, wanted to see if the system could be used in remote Arctic villages that aren't connected to a power grid.
"There's a significant interest in rural communities because right now many have to listen to a noisy diesel generator, 24-seven," Witmer said.
As with any new technology, the main obstacle is the cost. The 5-kilowatt experimental fuel cell that is running at the INEEL costs $200,000, and that doesn't include the cost of a system to isolate hydrogen from diesel.
Studies have shown that if the cost of the system came down to about $3,500, and could provide 5 kilowatts of electricity, plus heat, there would be a huge market among homeowners, Witmer said.