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Powering Soldiers

Thursday, May 15, 2014

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Solar panels provide power during a Network Integration Evaluation field exercise at White Sands Missile Range, N.M. (Credit: Dennis Steele)

Today’s Army runs on juice—not orange, but electric. Power has become the operative word today in landpower, because without electricity in various forms, the Army cannot fight. The current array of sophisticated systems employed at every level—from the highest headquarters to the lowest private—needs juice. Regardless of how much jaw-dropping technology a piece of equipment packs, it is expensive dead weight without power. Phones to drones—they all need charging.

A 2010 Army white paper laid out the problem, saying, “Today’s soldiers carry inordinately large numbers of batteries to power the range of individual equipment during a mission. Furthermore, there has been a proliferation of unique battery types, sizes and shapes. This is not simply a logistics problem; added weight and volume diminish soldier performance.”

The challenge in the “Power and Energy Strategy White Paper” was to provide soldiers with enough battery power for all the gizmos they need to carry while minimizing the physical payload as the number of devices increases.

Soldier Worn Integrated Power Equipment System


A squad leader reads messages on a secure smartphone, which is part of the advanced capability set that works off the Soldier Worn Integrated Power Equipment System and conformal battery integrated into body armor. (Credit: Dennis Steele)

Since the paper’s publication, the Army has developed and fielded systems to help do that. The latest battery recharging equipment allows soldiers to harvest, scavenge, borrow—or, if necessary, just plain steal—the power to keep their primary systems going. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is working on an even bigger leap in which soldiers’ bodies could be used to help generate power.

In addition, a major theater-centric need is lowering the burden and vulnerabilities incumbent on supply lines—for example, slashing the amount of fuel necessary to run the generators that run everything.

Soldiers Unplugged

The Army has developed a system that incorporates several practical ways to get and distribute power for small-echelon units. The hub is the Squad Power Manager, a box about the size of an individual breakfast cereal carton with input/output sockets around it. It takes power from a variety of sources and charges up to four devices at a time, including tactical radios, Defense Advanced Global Positioning System Receivers, laptop computers and universal serial bus devices.

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The Squad Power Manager can charge as many as four devices simultaneously by drawing power from a variety of sources. (Credit: U.S. Army)

Included in the system are several ways to get energy. If available, the Squad Power Manager can draw from a standard electrical outlet. If not, it can draw power from a variety of disposable batteries or use the set’s solar blanket to collect the sun’s power. The set includes a vehicle adapter that attaches to standard NATO plugs and draws power from whatever vehicle is nearby or encountered. It also has a clamp adapter that can draw from any civilian vehicle battery or standard generator.

A separate innovation currently being fielded in limited numbers is the Modular Universal Battery Charger, which replaces a sack full of specialized chargers and charges up to seven different kinds of batteries from a standard electrical current in approximately three to five hours.

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Flexible solar panels charge a platoon’s electronics through the Modular Universal Battery Charger. (Credit: Dennis Steele)

Both the Modular Universal Battery Charger and the Squad Power Manager underwent extensive field evaluations, including tests during a Network Integration Evaluation, and they were quickly adopted and fielded in limited numbers—including to units headed to Afghanistan and equipped with Capability Set 13 (a suite of capabilities, including network integration innovations, issued in 2013), and to high-priority readiness units.

Included with the full Capability Set 13 package is the Soldier Worn Integrated Power Equipment System. Through chargers and cables inside a soldier’s body armor, it maintains a high amount of charge in a conformal battery, which is a thin, ruggedized plate battery. The conformal battery wraps around a soldier’s body to provide about 150 watt-hours to power the integrated charger/distributor for all the devices normally attached to body armor such as radios, Global Positioning System receivers and the like. With the system, soldiers can trickle-charge their devices while on the move.

A somewhat similar system has been developed for vehicle mounting (and optionally as a moveable system for other applications) by Saft, a battery design and manufacturing company. Delivered under contract to the Army’s Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center, it is called the Advanced Deployable Renewable Energy System. This is a high-output battery that can be recharged from a variety of sources, including solar, and then be plugged into a vehicle (in scalable numbers) to power all the integrated equipment, radios and the like, without the need for continuously running the engine. It saves fuel.

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The battery component of the Advanced Deployable Renewable Energy System. (Credit: Saft)

Garbage to Grid

A high-tech machine that can gobble garbage, spit out synthetic fuel and use it to generate electrical power currently sits crated and stored at the U.S. Army’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, Md., and faces an uncertain future.

For now, at least, it is a casualty of budget strangulation and, perhaps, waning military interest as the war in Afghanistan winds down and the huge forward operating base (FOB) infrastructures that supported soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan edge toward historical footnote status.

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A prototype of the Tactical Garbage to Energy Refinery undergoes a test. (Credit: U.S. Army)

The device is about the size of a shipping container and is named TGER (pronounced “tiger”), an acronym for Tactical Garbage to Energy Refinery. It consumed nearly a decade of development attention and bureaucratic nudging from one of the Army’s leading scientists.

Starting in 2005, James J. Valdes, a Ph.D. neuroscientist and biotechnology researcher, saw a set of wartime logistics problems and sought a biotechnology solution. He worked at Edgewood for 32 years and retired from government service last January as the senior biological scientist and advisor to U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command.

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James J. Valdes is the power behind the system. (Credit: U.S. Army)

“I kept seeing how much fuel we hauled into theater,” Valdes said. “It can cost up to $400 a gallon to haul fuel, and it’s dangerous because fuel convoys are targets.”

The second problem he recognized was the Army’s trash—mountains of it.

“Trash is a big logistical problem. The average soldier generates about 4 to 5 pounds per day,” he explained, “and hauling out trash is a security issue and a public health issue because contractors haul trash out, and you’re not sure if they’re good guys or bad guys. Even if they’re good guys, they tend to take the trash over the hill and dump it in the next village. It’s American trash, so, of course, that becomes a public affairs and a public health nightmare. Also, it’s very expensive to haul trash away.”

By using biotechnology, he knew that in solving the trash problem, the fuel problem could be impacted, too, but no field-deployable system incorporating the necessary technologies existed.

At the time, part of his job involved serving as the bio-

technology technical chief for the Army’s Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer Research programs, the latter of which he saw as an avenue to come up with a fix by meshing government, business and academic institution efforts.

It started, however, with a look at where the fuel was being used.

“If you ask an average soldier, person or even a four-star general, ‘What do you think is the biggest user of fuel during a war in theater?’ they will tell you tanks, helicopters, aircraft or tactical trucks. That’s just not true,” Valdes said. “About 50 percent of the fuel at FOBs is used for things like powering generators, the trucks hauling things into and out of the FOB, and for powering [cooking] stoves, which run all the time. … So we thought if we could eliminate the need for fuel for simple things—like stoves and generators—we could reduce the amount of fuel needed for the trucks that convoy fuel in, too. Stoves and generators don’t need high-quality fuel, but you don’t want to put a fuel that’s made from an uneven feed stock into a helicopter, for example, and I wouldn’t ride on one that tried to use it.”

There was no tactical energy proponent at the time, so Valdes decided to fill the gap as far as biotechnology applied and the small-business channels would take it.

He outlined objectives and received proposals, from which a collaboration was formed. Valdes’ laboratory handled the science, oversight and bureaucratic sides, the engineering department at Purdue University developed and assembled the machinery, and an Alexandria, Va., small business, Defense Life Sciences, headed by a retired Army colonel and Ranger who knew about operating in a field environment, acted as the system integrator.

“We liked the TGER proposal because it was a hybrid system, advanced fermentation and gasification, so we could get rid of a broader range of waste—food slop from the dining facility and the cardboard, ammunition wrappers, packing material and plastic bottles—and make power,” Valdes said.

The technologies involved are complex, but suffice it to say that garbage goes into a hopper at one end, and through applied science, synthetic gas/biofuel comes out the other end, producing more than enough to fuel a 60-kilowatt generator that is part of the TGER system.

The byproducts are grey water, which can be purified for use, and benign char and ash—certified as inert by the Environmental Protection Agency and through extensive Army testing.

“You could spread it on your roses,” Valdes said.

He added that the U.S. Army Research Laboratory thinks the ash and char could be mixed with other compounds to create building material on the spot.

Starting with the small-business program seed money, the project eventually gained the attention of the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force program and received more funding. The result was two TGER 1 developmental versions and a three-month field test in Iraq under harsh summer conditions.

The lessons learned from that test and further engineering after the trials resulted in a TGER 2 version, which is where the program stands now. It is more efficient, producing about three times the first version’s British thermal unit power, and it more completely consumes garbage, especially plastics. It also is more automated.

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Power from Soldiers’ Bodies and ‘No Surrender’ Batteries

On the “you’ve got to be kidding” scale, no energy development efforts approach some of the ideas from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The agency is looking to develop “vanishing” batteries that would commit suicide rather than be captured by the enemy. Such batteries would help to address technology security on the battlefield—a practical danger—as part of the agency’s Vanishing Programmable Resources program. Starting with batteries, the program ultimately seeks to embed triggering capability into a range of programmable components that would start to decompose into the surroundings upon receiving a signal, evading notice and capture or at least becoming useless. It could be any device—night-vision devices, remote sensors or unmanned aerial system aircraft that need to be in enemy territory but should not fall into enemy hands, allowing use or technological study.

The agency also is funding a project to develop a micro-battery the size of a single grain of rice or salt, working with researchers at the University of California-Los Angeles, among others, to design nano-scale power packs to run a host of small devices like drones the size of dragonflies. The university’s scientists are making experimental batteries by spraying layers of lithium compound—on the atomic level—onto a base of microscopic wires to create a solid electrode with a current flow. This approach uses today’s battery technology (lithium-ion) but painstakingly scales it down.

Meanwhile, at Cornell University, the agency is funding research to develop small-scale beta emitters, betavoltaic power cells, which draw energy from radioactive material by freeing electrons to bounce around. The power cells could be useful for many purposes, but scientists related their capabilities by saying that one of them could power a heart pacemaker for 20 years—essentially having a nuclear reactor in your chest.

The agency also is working on a system to wirelessly recharge soldiers’ existing and emerging handheld systems. The system is envisioned as a short-range power transmission device to charge electronics on the go without having to stop and plug them into a traditional charger. Development is looking at a battery pack worn by one soldier that allows others to draw power from it wirelessly at a range of about six feet.

The battery pack could be recharged and store power in the traditional sense, but it also could generate its own power by transferring energy collected from a range of means into useable electrical energy. If the agency has its way, that power could be electrical energy generated by untapped power from the human body itself. Under another of its development programs, researchers are looking at using piezoelectric and thermodynamic power generation.

Thermodynamic power generation produces power from the dynamic differences of temperature among objects—in this case, the difference between the temperature of soldiers’ bodies and the surrounding environment—by using sensors on clothing or equipment that are connected to them. Piezoelectricity is created by motion such as walking, but someday that energy could be drawn from breathing or blood flow. Just being alive would generate electricity.

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In terms of potential energy output and fuel savings, an Army Force Provider unit, which is designed to provide life support for about 600 soldiers, usually allots three 60-kilowatt generators. A TGER system could directly replace one of those generators, and Valdes said a conservative estimate is that it could make enough fuel to help power the others, cranking out at least 50 percent of a Force Provider unit’s generator fuel needs (maybe more) while getting rid of the trash.

“When we talk about garbage, we don’t talk about weight, because plastic is light but it takes up a lot of space. Food is dense and heavy, but doesn’t take up much space,” Valdes said. “So, when we talk about volume, not weight, TGER gives a 30-to-1 reduction in the volume of waste. If you start off with 30 cubic yards of waste, you end up with 1 cubic yard of ash or char. That’s important because at the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Camp Victory—with around 35,000 people—was generating about 15,000 cubic meters of waste per day. Eight incinerators were running 24 hours a day to handle the load, and each incinerator consumed 1,500 gallons of fuel or more per day, so we’re talking in the range of 12,000–16,000 gallons of fuel needed per day just to get rid of trash at Camp Victory.”

Valdes noted that developers know what is required to build a TGER 3 version with more capacity, efficiency and automation—a version ready for a program manager and to become an Army program of record—“but right now, there’s no money for it,” he said.

Although retired, Valdes unofficially keeps tabs on TGER. It was his baby for so long.

“I wouldn’t say that I’m TGER’s father; I’m more like its midwife,” he said. “I didn’t design TGER. We had really good engineers at Purdue, and we had the system integrators at Defense Life Sciences. I identified the requirement. I got the money. I got the people together. I kept it going. So I’m sort of like the midwife, maybe the godfather, because I made it happen. I just hope the Army does the right thing, sees the potential for TGER and funds the TGER 3.”

Unless that happens, TGER and its potential remain caged at Edgewood.