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solar energy us air force expeditionary campaign
The US Air Force is leaning on solar energy, wireless charging, robotics, energy storage and other clean tech to decarbonize (USAF image by Corey Parrish).

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US Air Force Taps Solar Energy, Wireless Transmission For Battlefield Deployment

The US Air Force is determined to sail into a carbon negative future with a big dose of solar energy, regardless of West Virginia US Senator Joe Manchin’s opposition to climate action.

The US Air Force has seen the future, and it has solar energy written all over it. Last fall the Air Force Research Laboratory announced an eight-project lineup for its new Expeditionary Energy Campaign initiative focusing on clean tech and renewables. Among those eight, front and center is a leading US solar energy developer that has been flying mostly under the radar.

The Biggest Solar Company You Never Heard Of

The new Expeditionary Energy campaign comes under the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Transformational Capabilities office. The aim is to produce “needle-moving capability enhancements for the expeditionary warfighter.”

By needle-moving they don’t mean using the same old planet-killing fuels more efficiently. They do allow some wiggle room, but the main focus is on renewable energy, wireless transmission, and other clean tech.

That brings us to AES Corporation, a Fortune 500 solar energy firm based in Virginia. When AFRL announced the new energy campaign on November 3, they gave the #1 slot on their eight-project list to AES, describing the company as “a leader in renewable energy and energy storage and…the fifth largest solar developer in the world.”

US Air Force Enlists Leading Solar Energy Innovator

AES may not be a household name, but it is a regular on the CleanTechnica radar. Earlier this month the company expanded its solar pipeline of 4 gigawatts to 10 gigawatts, by acquiring another leading solar developer, the company Community Energy.

On the innovation side, this month AES also announced a new high efficiency robotic solar installation system called Atlas, developed in collaboration with Calvary Robotics, among other partners.

AES also focuses on 24/7 delivery by combining solar energy with other technologies, along with other innovations and collaborative projects including:

  • Investing in 5B and its MAVERICK technology, which enables the deployment of solar resources three times as fast to deliver twice the amount of energy on the same amount of land
  • Pioneering the world’s first DC-coupled solar plus battery storage solutions providing dispatchable clean energy
  • Deploying solar robots from Ecoppia to automate the cleaning of panels to ensure peak performance.

Solar Energy & The Need For Speed

Aside from wide expertise in solar technology, the main threads in the AES story are speedy setup, 24-7 delivery, and the conservation of human labor through robotics, all three of which would come in handy for an expeditionary force.

As with the other five projects in the Expeditionary Energy Campaign, AES won its slot through the US Air Force AFWERX energy innovation challenge program, which supports the new Air Force goal of achieving carbon negative status.

The company is tasked with something called “4S—Swift Standalone Solar + Storage—to Mitigate Fuel Dependence and Reduce Logistical Risks.”

No word yet on what the storage technology will consist of, but AES is deeply entwined in lithium-ion technology through its Fluence joint venture with Siemens, so they could be heading in that direction.

More Clean Tech Projects For Future Fighters

Solar energy is not the only renewable resource on the table. Another of the eight slots in the new campaign went to the Icelandic company IceWind, which will make fans of vertical axis wind technology very happy. Vertical wind turbines don’t get much love from some quarters, but the Air Force seems to think that the technology is a good fit for expeditionary forces where durability and ease of setup are priorities.

A third project that supports the goal of moving away from fossil energy is an electrification system developed by the Massachusetts company Rise Robotics with a startup called Liftwave, Inc. The idea is to replace conventional heavy-duty hydraulic equipment with electrical power systems. “The startup’s core technology is an electrically powered mechanical linear actuator with all of the abilities of a hydraulic cylinder but vastly improved efficiency and control,” enthuses the Air Force.

Wireless transmission would complete the next generation electrification circle, and the Air Force has tapped the California company Reach Labs for that task. The company is expected to deliver a passive relay, which is basically a lens that can focus a wireless power signal. The aim would be to expand the range between transmitter and receiver nodes.

Wireless charging is already a thing for electric vehicles as well as handheld devices. Reach is aiming past those targets to hit the field of wireless power for heavy equipment.

Servicing aircraft on the ground with 100% electrified equipment is a leading goal of the campaign, and the Air Force has tasked the Vermont company Resonant Link in that field. Of note, Resonant link has designed a wireless charging system for robots as well as portable devices and electric vehicles.

“Resonant Link is exploring the feasibility of a scalable, forward-deployable, and ultra-high-efficiency wireless charging system to support an all-electric flightline, including ground support equipment,” the Air Force explains.

A good generator would also come in handy, and the Air Force has handed that assignment to Florida Turbine Technologies, Inc. which is a division of the Florida firm Kratos Defense & Security Solutions. FTT is expected to come up with “a lightweight, power dense portable generator system for expeditionary forces.”

Next-Generation Storage For Renewable Energy

Things get really interesting when you look at the work assigned to the Chicago firm Influit Energy. The company specializes in “nanotechnology-based functional liquids, or nanofluids, that enable powerful solutions for a variety of energy challenges.”

If you are thinking flow batteries, run right out and buy yourself a cigar. The “flow” in a flow battery is literal. Flow batteries work off the ability of two specialized fluids to generate electricity when they flow adjacent to each other. Typically a thin membrane separates the liquids, though researchers have been exploring the possibility of membrane-free flow batteries.

Flow battery technology has some catching up to do, because lithium-ion batteries continue to dominate the energy storage market, especially for use in electric vehicles.

Nevertheless, the technology has been improving in recent years, and Influit appears to have gotten the jump on its competitors. The company is targeting the electric vehicle market for its variation on the flow battery theme, which it has dubbed the “Nanoelectrofuel Flow Battery.”

“Liquid (flow) batteries offer a more convenient means of electric vehicle (EV) operation, with rapid refueling option, separation of charging and use of electricity,” Influit explains, while noting that conventional flow batteries are too bulky for EVs.

“Influit Energy developed a novel type of rechargeable battery that features active energy storing materials in pumpable liquid form, which essentially allows us to use batteries in the same fashion as gasoline-powered engines,” they add.

Influit claims 1-1/2 times the energy density of lithium-ion batteries at half the cost and all the bennies including fast refueling and vehicle-to-grid or vehicle-to-home capability. Influit also notes that its electrofuel can double as an electricity transportation medium.

Wiggle Room For Old Fuels (But Not Much)

Add solar energy and other renewables to the flow battery equation, and it sure looks like the Air Force leaning towards 100% electrification.

However, the global energy transition is still struggling to get out of the baby step phase, which explains why Siemens Energy earned a spot in the Expedition Energy Campaign for its small scale “Hummingbird” gas turbine.

Fossil stakeholders may want to keep their shouts of joy to themselves for now, though. Siemens Energy is among a growing list of leading global manufacturers that are introducing gas turbines capable of ditching natural gas for green hydrogen, the “green” referring to solar energy and other renewable resources.

Pulling back to get a perspective on the big picture, electrifying Air Force ground operations is a near term goal. Decarbonizing jet fuel is another kettle of fish.

As for the rest of the US climate action picture, West Virginia US Senator Joe Manchin is already out of step with all 49 other US Senators in the Democratic caucus, who could have passed the Build Back Better climate action bill along for President Biden’s signature except now they can’t, because they need Senator Manchin’s 50th vote.

Manchin may have won the Build Back Better battle, but the US Air Force is forging ahead on climate action, with or without his support.

What was that about supporting our troops, again?

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Photo: Solar energy prioritized by US Air Force (via defense.gov).

 
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Written By

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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