Fuel Cells and Renewable Energy to help power tomorrow’s battlefield.

by By Allen Gibson

The military of the future is going to be a much more energy-efficient organization, if recent announcements of R&D contracts are any indication.

As part of its efforts to reduce cost, the military is looking more and more at integrating commercial technologies with military hardware. The commercial fuel cell market is looking to explode within the next 10 years with sales predicted to hit $3.3 billion within two years, and $10 billion by 2009, according to Technology Training Corporation data. Major challenges still exist, however, in making fuel cell systems mobile, agile, survivable, stealthy and easily deployable on a future battlefield. But the work is underway…

From the Air Force to the Army to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the DoD, the services are actively exploring ways to make their processes more of a closed energy loop, for both strategic and tactical reasons. Potentially, this is very good news for commercial fuel-cell specialists like Astris Energi, who have spent twenty-one years weaning alkaline fuel cells out of the space program, by discovering how to build their cells without the need for costly platinum components. Astris’ latest power generator has a total system efficiency of more than 50% – several multiples higher than gas generators.

It’s those kind of energy efficiency figures that have the military interested. The Army, for example, is working with DARPA to create the “Mobile Integrated Sustainable Energy Recovery” (MISER) program.

The idea is simple, but brilliant. Use the plastic garbage from field operations to fuel field operations, by converting the plastics into generator fuel of the type the army calls ‘logistics fuel,’ i.e.: diesel, which can then be used in a fuel cell.

Plastic packaging has an energy content approaching diesel’s, so a military unit, which crates lots of plastic garbage, could achieve well over 100 percent self-sufficiency in generator fuel. In the process, they would save millions of gallons of costly diesel, which, according to Allied Business Intelligence (ABI), costs the military anywhere from $1 to $400 per gallon to deliver on the battlefield! On site fuel cells would also significantly reduce the truck and manpower ‘logistics tail’ needed to deliver that expensive diesel and will also likely save lives, since fuel convoys are a favourite target in war zones such as Iraq.

CellTech Power has spent the last 6 years researching and developing its anode and cell technology to run directly on any fuel from coal to natural gas, and says it hopes to have MISER’s plastic-based version running within three years.

At the same time, Polytechnic University and DNA 2.0 in Los Altos, Calif., will use a novel enzyme catalyst approach to make a high-value bioplastic for military packaging. The carbon to make the new plastics is from plant oils, such as corn, sunflower and soybean. The resulting bioplastic is designed to be easily useable in the fuel conversion process.

The race is on to replace batteries on the battlefield. Another area of intense R&D activity is in micro fuel-cells, which can be used to run everything from mobile phones to computers. Some experts think fuel cells will find their first widespread use in portable electronics, since “micro cells” offer far higher energy densities than batteries.

“DARPA is particularly focussed on small energy sources of the type we could use in a micro-air vehicle or to power the gear a soldier has to carry on the battlefield,” says spokesperson Jan Walker. “Currently, we tend to use batteries, which means a soldier has to carry enough batteries for the length of the mission. But if we could develop a fuel cell for the soldier, it would be lighter to carry.”

And considering that the airborne infantry had to carry 22 different types of batteries into Iraq, the appeal becomes obvious. Fuel cells could allow a typical laptop to operate unplugged for ten hours or more, as well as eliminating the need for battery chargers and AC adapters.

The Air Force also wants micro cells, but in their case it’s for laptop computers. General Dynamics’ C4 Systems has won a 1.3 Million dollar Air Force contract to develop 10 prototype tablet computers powered by direct-liquid fuel cells that could be used by special operations forces for portable air traffic control.

Medis Technologies, a participant in the project, has indicated that in a few quarters it could have a similar fuel cell commercially available. Medis has already successfully demonstrated liquid fuel cell systems that operate portable electronic devices. This is part of a growing trend in the U. S. military. It’s placing greater emphasis on using technologies and products that are commercially available, and then integrating and developing them for military usage, according to a C4 vice president. Which, if you think about it, is another aspect of reducing waste. It’s called re-cycling.

The Department of Defense (DoD) is also pursuing cell technology, awarding Nanomaterials Discovery Corporation (NDC) a $2.5 million contract for the development of its fuel cell technology.

NDC is working on a new class of fuel cells powered by high-energy materials such as propellants and explosives. Ultimately, says the Company, such cells could enable development of miniature power supplies for fusing and arming munitions. That, in turn, could mean land mines that turn themselves off after a set period of time. Another life saver. And saving lives, after all, is the ultimate in renewable energy!

Source: HomeLandDefenseStocks.com