At the end of the demonstration period in 2017, the hope is to have an idea whether the technology is "really worth pursuing," Butrico said. "Obviously from what we know now we think it probably is worth pursuing, but again, we are not the end users so we really want our customer to tell us how to shape future efforts and, the technology, where it goes."
If all goes well, the next step might be to incorporate the technology into a military vehicle like a Humvee. GM and TARDEC opted to demonstrate the technology using a commercial vehicle first because of the much shorter build timeline.
But applications for vehicles like Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles that use a lot of fuel in idle mode to power on-board equipment hold a lot of promise.
The Army will take the keys from GM on April 10, and then a wide range of soldiers, even potentially other services, will put the ZH2 to the test.
The demonstrator will first go to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida for special forces units to try.
From there, the vehicle will be transported at the end of June to Fort Carson, Colorado, where it will be tested by a wide variety of units from Stryker brigades to armored, light infantry and more special forces. The environment will give the Army a chance to test the technology at high-altitude and rockier terrain, Butrico said.
At the end of August, the ZH2 will be passed to soldiers at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and then it will be moved to Fort Benning, Georgia, in early September, Butrico said.
Also in September, the ZH2 will make an appearance at Modern Day Marine and will take a turn on the Severe Off-Road Track at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia.
While not yet locked in, according to Butrico, the ZH2 might also undergo evaluations with the Marine Corps and Naval Special Warfare Command as well as the Army’s 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii. Those would likely happen at some point between October and April, he said.
The technology being tested in the vehicle now could expand far beyond such a platform in the future. Butrico said the tech is being incorporated into an unmanned undersea vessel and that there is a hydrogen-powered unmanned aircraft currently in the lab at TARDEC. The technology could also be used for stationary power supply at bases that currently consume a large amount of fuel.
The demonstrations also stand to address some of the misinformation or presumptions about hydrogen fuel cell technology that may have stunted its progression into the mainstream in the past.
"The biggest question that we always get is safety," Butrico said. "Hydrogen explodes," but if it’s pure hydrogen, a lighted match would go out, he added. "Pure hydrogen will not ignite. You have to have a pretty optimal combination of hydrogen, oxygen and emission source so that if that ratio is too much hydrogen or not enough hydrogen, it won’t combust."
Also, a puncture in a liquid fuel tank would leak on the ground close to a vehicle, but hydrogen escapes straight up at 45 miles per hour, Butrico noted.
"There are questions we haven’t even thought of that soldiers are going to come up with," Butrico said. "We really look forward to that and having them hit us with things that we didn’t expect so we can think about that, consider it and plan for it in the follow-on phase, and not just with this vehicle, but any other vehicle as well."
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.