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DARPA Seeking PoP in Solar Power Arms Race

DARPA is seeking revolutionary new lightweight portable photovoltaic power

DARPA, the U.S. military’s chief high-tech office, is looking for a few good photovoltaics. Not just any garden variety solar panels, mind you.  The agency is soliciting proposals for Low-Cost Lightweight Portable Photovoltaics (PoP) that can stand up to battle conditions and environmental extremes while delivering high power conversion efficiency.  Think backpacks with built-in solar capacity, with teeth.


PoP and the Solar Arms Race

As Dwight D. Eisenhower noted, the U.S. military is historically a high mobility force, and DARPA’s solicitation aims in part to maintain or improve that edge.  DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is holding out for cutting edge solar technology in a military landscape that is increasingly reliant on portable electronic devices.  Fueling these devices is a logistical challenge of epic proportions, especially when it comes down to powering up individual troops and robotic devices.  Oil, coal, and other fossil fuels won’t cut it, nuclear is not an option when it comes to small mobile units, and conventional batteries are proving far too heavy and short-lived.  A more sustainable energy source is demanded and DARPA is banking on solar, possibly in combination with fuel cells.  DARPA is already moving toward a future without conventional batteries and is deep into research on lightweight portable fuel cells, which underwent a major test in this year’s Cobra Gold joint exercise.  Lightweight portable solar generating capacity adds another dimension to meeting the sustainable power challenge.

Solar with the Right Stuff

Solar is fast becoming a U.S. military fixture, including plans for the world’s most powerful solar thermal array. Darpa is taking it one step beyond.  The agency is looking for a revoluntionary new photovoltaic device based on thin-film or microcrystalline semiconductors (or materials with similar properties), which is highly efficient, durable, portable, and flexible.  In practical terms, that means a device that can withstand extremes in temperature and humidity, and maintain high function and flexibility regardless of dust, sand, or water in the form of precipitation or full immersion.  The project dovetails with a number of other U.S. military projects involving or potentially involving solar that can withstand extreme conditions.  DARPA is seeking sustainable energy to power ocean station buoys, the U.S. Air Force is developing a solar blimp, and stimulus funding is targeted on solar mats for forward bases.  As the durability-focused technology trickles into civilian life, the prospect looks good for a solar future that brings more high-efficiency sustainable power to more parts of the world.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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