Disposable batteries have been called a logistical nightmare by the U.S. Army, and for good reason. With the increasing use of electronic gear, today’s foot soldier has to carry more batteries and the weight adds up. The Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency has been actively seeking a solution in the form of portable fuel cells, and now students at the Stevens Institute of Technology are working on a portable reactor that can produce hydrogen for fuel cell batteries, using ordinary ingredients commonly found at Army bases.
The Trouble with Batteries
The Defense Reduction Threat Agency (didn’t know we had one of those, did you?) has been actively pushing for alternatives to conventional batteries for a while now. The military uses at least 100 different types of batteries, which poses challenges for supply and purchasing, shipping and distribution, and disposal in accordance with any applicable environmental regulations. That’s complicated enough for base uses, and it gets even worse when you consider the batteries that troops have to carry into the field. According to the U.S. Army, on a typical 72-hour mission a soldier in Afghanistan carries 70 batteries (70 units, not 70 different kinds), accounting for about 20 percent of the weight they carry. The cost is astronomical, too — for an infantry battalion, batteries are second in cost only to munitions.
Safer Hydrogen Production for the Military
Fuel cells run on hydrogen, and the problem for the military is that hydrogen stored in containers is highly volatile. It’s not the safest thing to have around a base in a combat area. One solution is to produce it on an as-needed basis, but the conventional means of hydrogen production is complex and somewhat risky, therefore also not suitable for use in the field. The Stevens team set out to tackle these two problems. Using a microfabrication process like those used to manufacture plasma TV sets, they designed a microreactor that uses a less risky process involving a lower temperature and pressure than is typically required. It produces hydrogen only as needed, practically eliminating the risk of creating a volatile target.
Sustainable Fuel Cells
So far, the team has produced hydrogen from methanol. The eventual goal is to develop a process that uses ordinary fuels that are typically found on military bases, such as butane or propane. The Stevens research does not address the issue of fossil fuels vs. biofuels as a feedstock, but given the rapid advances in biofuel research – to say nothing of the potential for using solar power – it is likely that the microreactor of the future will be powered by renewable energy.
Portable Fuel Cells for Everyone
Given the tendency of advances in military technology to cross over into civilian use, it’s also likely that us ordinary citizens will eventually be able to ditch batteries in favor of pocket-sized fuel cells such as one under development at Oxford University. Raytheon’s foray into wearable fuel cells for soldiers is another crossover example with plenty of civilian potential.
- Is That a Fuel Cell in Your Pocket, Or Are You Just Glad to See Me?
- New Discovery: Producing Hydrogen from Natural Gas, Sans CO2 Emissions
Image: Batteries by moria