When the 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division deployed to Afghanistan earlier this year, their rucksacks were full of experimental renewable energy equipment provided by the Army in an ambitious effort to see how the gear held up under the stresses of actual combat. A few months in, officials say they’re pretty optimistic about the experiment, especially since the brigade has been in the thick of the fight in Afghanistan’s violent eastern provinces, acting as “thickening” for 3rd Special Forces Group, according to Army Maj. Mark Owens, who recently returned from an assessment trip to the unit.
The Army is particularly excited about hydrogen fuel cell technology, which drastically reduces the amount of heavy, bulky batteries that soldiers have to carry on dismounted missions. Owen’s shop, PM Soldier Warrior, studied one particular 3-day mission with a company-sized element and found that the fuel cell reduced the amount of batteries the company carried by a whopping 600 lbs.
The fuel cells, which are powered by a reform methanol base—meaning that it’s slightly watered down—“gets lighter and lighter as time goes on,” Owens says, “and the case weighs almost nothing.” Still, the rucksack packable fuel cell generator weighs 36 lbs. according to documents the Army shared with AvWeek, which isn’t nothing when humping long distances or over rough terrain. But a 36 lb. generator still beats 600 lbs of batteries, any way you cut it. “Obviously we want to get the weight down as much as possible,” Owens says. There is also a 4.6-lb. wearable fuel cell that can kick out 50 watts of continuous power for up to 10 hrs. that is under evaluation.
On his next trip downrange—which should be coming in a few weeks—Owens is bringing two brand-new rucksack-portable technologies: a 29-lb. 1 kilowatt JP-8 generator, as well as a propane-based fuel cell which, while still being a hydrogen fuel cell, operates on propane gas which any dismounted unit could probably buy from the locals almost anywhere in the world. This, again, is in keeping with the Army’s stated desire to be able to use multiple fuels in different environments, depending on what works best—or is most easily shipped or attainable—in a given situation.
The alternate fuels plan also fits with an idea being kicked around in the Army called the “Adaptive Brigade” which Col. Paul Roege of the U.S. Army Capabilities Integration Center explains as having the capability to use different fuels and power generation technologies to give a brigade some flexibility, “because there might be crops nearby that local farmers can sell you plant oils, there might be a woody biomass available, there might actually be someplace that has a local power grid, so they need to be able to utilize any kind of energy source.” The brigades of the future need “the flexibility [to] operate under different conditions and with different resources,” he says, but also, this capability must be networked, so that all the parts of the brigade, from the radio operator to tactical vehicles, can take advantage of whatever that local power source may be.
As it stands now, the Dept. of Defense sucks up one percent of all of the oil consumed in the United States, but there’s a big push to do things smarter. The Pentagon’s office of Operational Energy Plans and Programs is due to release its energy strategy some time over the next three months, and when it does—and if it gets institutional backing, which is a big if—we might actually see some major changes, as the DoD goes “green.”
Pics: US Army