The US Army is going to be marching a whole new generation of electronic gear into the field over the next 5 to 10 years, and it will take a whole new generation of high performance, lightweight energy storage devices to keep them powered up. That’s good news for clean energy fans, as new military technology has a way of seeping over to the civilian sphere. With that in mind, let’s take a look at a new $7.2 million battery research program just launched by the Army Research Laboratory.
The US Army launches new next-generation energy storage research effort, dings fossil fuels along the way (credit: Sgt. Effie Mahugh).
More Energy Storage For More Gear In 5–10 Years
Why, it seems like only yesterday that CleanTechnica took note of the Army’s big battery headache. That was all the way back in 2011, when the Army relied heavily on disposable batteries for on-the-go energy storage.
The sheer number and weight of batteries weighed heavily on the Army’s mind, but that is only part of the problem. The logistical complications are also nightmarish.
“The military uses at least 100 different types of batteries, which poses challenges for supply and purchasing, shipping and distribution, and disposal in accordance with any applicable environmental regulations,” we observed.
Adding to the hurt is cost. According to the Army Research Laboratory, in 2011 the yearly cost for fielding a battalion’s worth of batteries in Afghanistan was second only to the cost of munitions.
The increased use of rechargeable batteries hasn’t helped much. The Army calculates that batteries still account for 20 pounds of gear needed by each soldier on a 72-hour mission, and more trouble looms ahead as they pile on new and more sophisticated electronics.
For those of you keeping score at home, here’s a partial laundry list to be introduced over the next 5–10 years: “secure tactical radios; goggles with thermal and low-light sensors, rapid target acquisition and aided target identification, augmented reality and artificial intelligence; the next-generation combat rifle; unmanned aircraft systems; counter-IED equipment and more.”
The Road To Extreme Energy Storage
In its latest effort to tackle the energy storage problem, earlier this week the Army announced that the University of Maryland has nailed down $7.2 million in Army funding to spearhead a new alliance aimed at leaping over the hurdles in the way of next-generation rechargeable batteries.
“Extreme” is the word of the day, with goals including extreme charging (aka rapid charging) and extreme voltage leading to greater energy density with less mass.
On the foundational research side, the team is also aiming for “extreme evaluations,” meaning a more detailed understanding of battery degradation factors. The team is also tasked with “extreme transformational innovations” including solid state lithium batteries.
We’ll get to that thing about solid state batteries in a second, but first let’s pause to consider the firehose of talent the Army is deploying in its quest for better, lighter, and more powerful energy storage devices.
Aside from drawing on the Army Research Laboratory and the University of Maryland’s deep benches in the area of foundational battery research, the team consists of Montana State University, members of CREB (the Center for Research in Extreme Batteries, which is headquartered at the University of Maryland), and a raft of other experts including the Energy Department’s Argonne and Brookhaven laboratories, the National Institute of Standards & Technology, the New York Battery & Energy Storage Consortium, Stony Brook University, and the University of Texas-Austin.
On the private sector side are the supercapacitor firm Graphenix Development Inc., the solid state energy storage expert Ion Storage Systems, and the Saft America division of the leading global battery maker Saft.
Why Is Everybody Suddenly Talking About Solid State Batteries?
If you caught that thing about solid state batteries, that’s another running theme in this endeavor. Last spring the race for next-generation solid state batteries popped wide open in the area of energy storage for electric vehicles, part of the attraction being simplicity of design.
In one especially interesting development, back in May Oak Ridge National Laboratory proposed a super-thin electrolyte consisting of a new polymer (aka plastic) and ceramic composite.
That could be where Montana State University comes in, in case you were wondering about that. The Materials division in the school’s Energy Research Institute casts a wide net, covering “innovative ceramic processing for solid oxide fuel cells and electrochemical devices, templated carbon-based materials for energy storage, coatings for high temperature corrosion resistance, biodegradable and bio-derived polymers and composites for sustainable material and energy product lifecycles, and carbon fiber composite materials for energy applications.”
The fuel cell angle could also come into play, as a means of recharging batteries in the field. Back in 2010 the Army awarded a top 10 “Greatest Inventions” slot to an integrated power system that included a wearable fuel cell for recharging batteries.
More Batteries For More Clean Power
Rechargeable batteries are more or less source neutral, so all else being equal the Army’s stepped-up focus on advanced energy storage would not necessarily be bad news for fossil fuel stakeholders — except that it is.
Though largely running under the radar during the Trump administration, the US Department of Defense is still engaged in the long, complicated process of extricating itself from fossil fuel dependency. Aside from addressing resiliency and energy security issues of direct concern to military facilities, the effort also factors in resiliency and well-being issues that impact surrounding communities.
One especially significant new initiative in that area is a solar-plus-storage effort that pairs the Department of Defense with the nation’s sprawling network of rural electric cooperatives. That’s sprawling as in almost 900 cooperatives covering more than half the US land mass, serving a population of 42 million.
I know, right? Who knew? Electric cooperatives were created on the heels of the Great Depression to light up impoverished rural areas, and their special regulatory status provides them with broad license to adopt new technologies that benefit their communities including renewable energy and other clean tech.
The new plan launched in August with an eye toward bringing renewable energy microgrid and energy storage systems to the 95 military facilities that come under the service territory of electric cooperatives.
The Air Force already has a head start following the successful trial of a demonstration-scale solar microgrid with storage at Kirtland Air Force Base.
Speaking of the Air Force, check out its plan for leading the Department of Defense into carbon negative territory through its AFWERX innovation hub.
Not to be outdone, the Army takes note of Executive Order #13834, issued in 2018, which “focuses federal sustainability policy and on existing statutory requirements, continuous improvement, and cost effectiveness.”
That thing about “existing statutory requirements” would seem to throw a wet blanket over the decarbonization trend, except that the falling cost of solar power, wind power, and energy storage give the edge to clean tech on improvement and cost effectiveness.
Come to think of it, the Army is still handing out awards to facilities that achieve energy savings, with Fort Riley and Fort Knox among the latest examples.
Meanwhile, our friends over at Grist report that the Trump* administration has gummed up the works for dozens of US Department of Energy studies that could help the Defense Department accelerate its decarbonization efforts, leaving one to wonder whether or not the Commander-in-Chief really supports our troops like he says he does.