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GM takes a crack at underwater fuel cells

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Beverly
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via Flickr
Trained dolphins help the Navy detect mines and other underwater anomalies. The Navy recently tapped GM to develop a fuel cell that would power the dolphin's replacement technology: unmanned underwater vehicles.

Unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) are a big priority for the Navy. The nation's top naval officer, Adm. Gary Roughead, wants UUVs (and their airborne counterparts) to be a key part of what the Navy does.

But developing a power source for the underwater vehicles remains a major challenge. Over the next five years, half of all the money going toward UUV research and development is being used to find an effective power source.

That's where the GM plant in Honeoye Falls, N.Y. comes in.

This week GM inked a $1.6 million contract with the Navy to develop a hydrogen fuel cell prototype for the mini-submarines.

"It's an experimental project with the Navy," says Dan O'Connell, the director of GM's Honeoye Falls plant. "And we're looking forward to learning some new things about how we can use our fuel cells in the future."

Roughead has said that the Navy needs a source of power for the UUV that can propel the torpedo-like vehicles through strong currents for an extended period of time.

That's a challenge that O'Connell thinks GM's fuel cells should be able to meet. He says the expertise they've developed with fuel cell cars can be applied to underwater vehicles too.

"[The contract] allows us to do some additional testing, some additional work on how far we can push the envelope for our fuel cell modules," says O'Connell. 

So what is it that UUVs do? Besides possibly putting the cutest members of the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program into retirement, they detect mines and conduct ocean research. As one fact sheet puts it [PDF], the UUV also "enables the warfghter to remotely and clandestinely survey and search the littoral battlespace."

There's even a UUV built to swim like a tuna.

If you want to know more, the Office of Naval Research held a Q & A on the subject on their Facebook page today. You can check out a full transcript here.