New Energy Technologies Could Provide Military With Inexhaustible Power Sources
The Defense Department is the largest single user of energy in the United States, if not the entire world. That dependence costs the military billions of dollars in fuel a year and requires troops to undergo dangerous delivery missions.
In a future war, the Defense Department will need renewable energy sources that can juice up soldier equipment, sustain weapon systems and power bases, all while reducing the department’s logistical tail and reliance on fossil fuels, experts said.
“Napoleon said that an army runs on its stomach. Well, the truth is the army of today runs on oil,” said Andrew Holland, senior fellow for energy and climate at the American Security Project, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
During fiscal year 2012 — the most recent data available — the Defense Department spent $16.4 billion on 104 million barrels of liquid fuels for various operational energy uses, according to the office of the assistant secretary of defense for operational energy plans and programs.
The military derives its power almost exclusively from petroleum, Holland said. That dependence tethers the armed services to expensive oil and forces them to transport large quantities of fuel in dangerous and sometimes contested areas, he said.
Nuclear fusion reactors may offer troops plentiful energy on demand in a safer and less expensive way, he said.
The reactors work by taking hydrogen and heating it to high temperatures, Holland said. The hydrogen then fuses into helium and emits a large amount of energy that can be converted into electricity.
Unlike nuclear fission reactors, fusion reactors are much safer, he noted.
“There is no chance of a meltdown and there is no radioactive material left behind,” he said. A fusion reactor could be useful on an isolated base somewhere in the Asia-Pacific region, he added.
“A Navy/Marine base in Guam is powered all by diesel fuel that has to be shipped in at great cost. … If you could run that base on a fusion generator that requires no fuel, you could save a lot of money and cut your logistical tail significantly,” he said.
The ability to produce energy on demand while reducing logistical operations could be critical during a potential conflict in the area, he said.
“In certain future wars, especially in the Asia–Pacific, we have potential adversaries that … can certainly [threaten] the more vulnerable tail of the fleet and then force the fleet farther away,” Holland said.
Fusion reactors could be operational within 15 years if the proper investments are made, he said. In perhaps 20 or 30 years, such a reactor could even power an entire ship, he said.
Space-based solar energy is another potential source of abundant power for the military, Holland said.
One problem with terrestrial solar power plants is that they do not collect energy when the sun isn’t shining, Holland said. Space-based solar power solves that conundrum.
The process works by launching satellites into geosynchronous orbit, which is about 36,000 kilometers above the Earth’s equator. From there, a larger solar array would need to be built and installed.
Energy from the array can then be directed to Earth via a beam that is aimed at electrical fields about the size of a football field made of netting. Those fields would then harness the energy, he said.
The military could place electrical fields on forward operating bases or other remote locations to collect the energy and convert it to electricity, Holland said.
However, the cost would be enormous. Systems would be in the hundreds of billions of dollars, he noted.
“We have the technology to do all of this right now,” Holland said. “The trick is cost. The cost for launching things into space is prohibitive.”
The Office of Naval Research is working to reduce energy usage and find alternative means of powering equipment instead of petroleum-based sources, officials said.
“We are far from eliminating our dependence on fossil fuels, but we are making important strides to reducing the demand,” Billy Short, logistics program manager for ONR’s expeditionary maneuver warfare and combating terrorism department, said in an email.
“Right now we are focused on decreasing our dependence on fossil fuels, and reducing overall energy needs through increased efficiency and harvesting energy from renewable sources. This saves money, saves lives, reduces the size of our logistical tail and gets us back to our expeditionary roots,” he said.
ONR is exploring ways in which Marines could one day produce their own power though their own movements and the equipment they carry every day, Short said.
“Energy producing backpacks that produce energy from the up and down motion of the pack, photovoltaics on … [a] backpack [that] harness the power of the sun, knee braces that convert mechanical to electrical energy and even piezoelectrics that make energy from each boot step on the ground can extend mission durations and decrease resupply needs,” Short said.
Another ONR effort is the renewable sustainable expeditionary power program which aims to reduce the fuel usage of small Marine Corps power systems by 40 to 60 percent by using solar power and energy storage technologies, said H. Scott Coombe, program officer at ONR’s sea warfare and weapons department.
Two developmental efforts are currently in the works. One uses “thermal energy from a solar concentrator or from a burner to power a Stirling engine. The Stirling engine converts this heat into shaft power, then electricity via an internal linear generator,” Coombe said.
The other involves integrating a solid oxide fuel cell — a device that produces electricity from oxidizing a fuel, such as carbon monoxide — and commercial-off-the-shelf solar cells to create a hybrid system.
Demonstrations are underway now and critical design reviews will take place in the first quarter of fiscal year 2015, Coombe said.
The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, an agency within the Department of Energy, is currently working on a transformational fuel cell project that could eventually bring down the cost of the technology and help the military, said Acting Director Cheryl Martin. Fuel cells convert the chemical energy of a fuel source into electricity.
The Reliable Electricity Based on Electrochemical Systems (REBELS) program is funding 13 fuel cell projects that could one day provide low-cost distributed power.
“Our REBELS program … is looking at intermediate-temperature fuel cells which have the potential to do everything from act like a fuel cell and actually generate power directly … [as well as] act like a battery and store some extra energy … [and] potentially, in some of these cases, be able to do gas-to-liquid conversion to give yourself liquid fuel,” Martin said.
Those capabilities could be particularly useful for the military, Martin said.
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