The Merits of Lithium Ion Energy Storage On the Battlefield
By Doug Moorehead
A Marine Corps “energy assessment team” report released in January detailed the mission, activities and recommendations of a six-person group that evaluated fuel and water usage by Marine Expeditionary Brigade – Afghanistan (MEB-A) units in Helmand province in September 2009.
Among the report’s important suggestions for improving energy and water efficiency on the battlefield was the recommendation “to accelerate testing and certification of COTS [commercial off-the-shelf] equipment that can reduce fuel requirements.”
One of the most promising COTS technologies now available for use in military power systems is lithium-ion energy storage. Lithium-ion’s performance, weight, and volume characteristics have already won it a small foothold in tactical power applications, but its potential to enhance military energy efficiency remains largely untapped.
Lithium-ion suffers from a tainted reputation in the military, stemming at least partly from the 2008 fire onboard the Navy’s Advanced SEAL Delivery System, which was attributed to the mini-sub’s lithium-ion batteries. That mishap fueled concerns about lithium-ion’s safety and durability in military applications and created obstacles to its adoption and even its transport.
Those concerns have survived to this day, but are generally uninformed by the significant advances the lithium-ion industry has made in the past three years. Hundreds of millions of dollars in public and private investment have poured into lithium-ion development and manufacturing in the United States and China since 2007. The efforts have yielded substantial improvements in design and production quality, reliability and performance. There are now no fewer than three major lithium-ion battery producers in the United States manufacturing commercial products for the automotive, aviation and power tool industries.
Those batteries have been engineered to safely survive vehicle and aircraft crashes, punctures, fractures, overheating and electrical stressers such as overcharging. In fact, the maturity in commercial production of the core lithium-ion technology has caused a recent shift in engineering and investment focus within the battery industry from basic chemistry development to more intelligent and reliable application design and system integration.
The result is a safe and reliable product that delivers roughly three times the capacity and lifecycle as lead-acid batteries with only one-third the volume and weight.
The opportunity now exists for the military to develop significantly more demanding energy storage requirements for its existing and future inventories of power-generation and energy-management systems. Lithium-ion applications include traditional battery functions like power communications, starters, and uninterruptible power supplies, but also innovative products that could be applied to future military combat vehicles and power generators.
The current inventory of battery chemistries is inferior to lithium-ion in performance, and demands complex mechanisms to supply, support, and dispose of the wide variety of batteries. The Defense Department should commit to lithium-ion and simplify the acquisition and logistical tail supporting energy storage.
Doug Moorehead is president of Earl Energy, a power generation and energy management company specializing in alternative energy systems engineering and integration.