Could the next war be powered by potatoes? The U.S. military is exploring bio-batteries and fuel cells as part of its overall commitment to transformational energy, particularly portable power. To help kick-start the effort, the Department of Defense is soliciting bids for cutting edge bio-battery and fuel cell development through its Small Business Innovation Research grant program. That could mean just about anything for a fuel source, from sugar to potatoes, vodka or beer. Stay tuned for more: the deadline for submitting SBIR proposals is June 17.
U.S. Military Transforming Its Energy Strategy
From solar installations at army bases to high efficiency LED lighting systems for the Navy, the U.S. military has been hopscotching over the civilian world when it comes to investing in sustainability. It is fully committed to a long term transformational energy strategy. Alternative energy is just one piece of the puzzle. Another piece is the development of high-efficiency, lightweight portable power systems that will replace conventional batteries.
The U.S. Military Needs New Batteries
As the Defense Reduction Threat Agency describes it, the logistical footprint of portable power is in lockstep with the U.S. military’s carbon bootprint. Conventional batteries are unsustainable from both points of view. They’re an operational dead end for the dismounted soldier of the future, who is increasingly reliant on power-hungry communications and surveillance equipment in addition to armor and weaponry. Transporting heavy batteries to and around the field is just the beginning of the problem for DRTA, which states that the “acquisition, storage, distribution, and disposal of over a hundred different battery types poses an enormous logistical challenge.”
Bio-Based Batteries and Fuel Cells
Now, about those potatoes. As any grade school scientist can tell you, an ordinary potato can power a small electronic device. In fact, Sony has been developing a bio-based fuel cell that runs on sugar, and vodka bio-batteries run on similar principles. The big picture emerges from the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). The OSD has included Biological-Based Energy Storage and Generation Technologies in its list of topics for proposals under this year’s Small Business Innovation and Research grant program. The agency cites transforming the way we generate, distribute, and store power as the key to a “revolutionary” advantage in tomorrow’s wars. To achieve that, we need batteries and fuel cells that are “more efficient, compact, safe, and cost effective.”
The U.S. military envisions an energy future for itself that is safer and more sustainable. So, how about the rest of us? It will be interesting to see what contributions our fossil fuel industries can make to this national defense priority, especially concerning our safety. I suppose hiring a PR firm is a good first step.
Image: JohnSeb on flickr.com.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.