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NEWS | Jan. 4, 2024

NRL Researchers Receive Defense Manufacturing Technology Achievement Award

By Nicholas E. M. Pasquini, U.S. Naval Research Laboratory Corporate Communications

U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) researchers, Kevin Cronin and Drew Rodgers, receive Technology Achievement Award for Lightweight Hydrogen Fuel Cells for Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) research efforts at Defense Manufacturing Conference held in Nashville, Tenn., Dec. 11, 2023.
The Department of Defense (DOD) has a critical need for increased power and endurance for persistent Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and transmission of radio frequency (RF) sources for communications and targeting.
“It is rewarding to be able to contribute to such an innovative and impactful project alongside a talented team of researchers,” said Cronin from the Chemistry Division’s Alternative Energy Section. “Working at the Naval Research Laboratory means pushing the frontier of science and technology to equip the warfighter with the most advanced capabilities we can deliver. This project evolved from basic and applied research to a mature system with a domestic manufacturer, ready for integration and adoption.”

Hydrogen fuel cells are also well suited for low signature applications because they provide energy through an electrochemical reaction, so there are fewer moving parts and a much lower operating temperature relative to combustion engines. The byproduct is water, which supports initiatives to reduce carbon emissions.

“I leveraged over a decade of fuel cell experience to develop many of the mechanical designs necessary for assembly, compression, and packaging of components,” said Rodgers from the Tactical Electronic Warfare Division’s (TEW) Vehicle Research Section. “The TEW Vehicle Research Section has a long history of partnering with the Chemistry Division to help develop, fabricate, integrate, and test advanced power and energy systems within our unmanned vehicles. This was certainly a group effort culminating in many years of hard work from multiple contributors and will provide the warfighter with improved capabilities now and into the future.”
Commercially available hydrogen fuel cells for UAS have inadequate performance for military use. There is presently no U.S. vendor that makes a lightweight fuel cell on the order of 1-3 kilowatts, leaving a key manufacturing technology gap that prevents RF surveillance by fuel cell powered UAVs.

This Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) Manufacturing Science and Technology Program (MSTP) established a mature fuel cell system to fill this gap, as well as a domestic fuel cell manufacturing base. Other spiral developments have emerged to allow joint implementation of this fuel cell technology in a variety of applications beyond UAS.
“By leveraging hydrogen as an energy source, Marines can keep their unmanned aerial systems flying longer and their generators running quieter,” Cronin said. “These advantages support persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and decreased signature for expeditionary advanced base operations.”

NRL’s fuel cell research is sponsored by the OSD MSTP, the Office of Naval Research (ONR), the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), and the Marine Corps Expeditionary Energy Office (USMC E20).
“The reason we were able to demonstrate why this manufacturable fuel cell was so important is from collaboration with NAWCAD, who both furthered the fuel cell maturation and led the integration into the Stalker UAS,” Cronin said. “Sponsorship from ONR was also critical, both for the early applied research preceding the MSTP project, as well for the original FY22 Hydrogen Small Unit Power (H-SUP) project. Finally, USMC E2O has since picked up the torch from ONR and is now funding the new and improved H-SUP into FY24 and beyond.”
The Marine Corps established the Expeditionary Energy Office to reduce energy consumption, with the goals of increasing combat effectiveness by reducing the need for liquid fossil fuel by 50 percent by 2025 and using liquid fuel only for mobility systems, which will be more energy efficient than systems are today.

“As the Navy’s corporate research laboratory, NRL conducts world-class basic, applied and developmental research in the chemical and physical sciences and innovates new concepts, materials, and capabilities to increase U.S. Naval power and enable superior advantage,” said Dr. John N. Russell, Jr., NRL Chemistry Division Superintendent.  “The research, development and demonstration of Lightweight Hydrogen Fuel Cells for unmanned aerial systems was possible due to a strong culture of collaborative, multidisciplinary research at NRL that drew on a deep science and engineering foundation in the chemistry of alternative liquid fuels and unmanned systems.” 
About the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory
NRL is a scientific and engineering command dedicated to research that drives innovative advances for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps from the seafloor to space and in the information domain. NRL is located in Washington, D.C. with major field sites in Stennis Space Center, Mississippi; Key West, Florida; Monterey, California, and employs approximately 3,000 civilian scientists, engineers and support personnel.
For more information, contact NRL Corporate Communications at (202) 480-3746 or

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