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Research Looks at Alternative Power for Military

South Dakota State University
10-Dec-2010 10:20 AM EST, by South Dakota State University

Newswise — Imagine solar cells that soldiers can roll up like a mat, transport, and unroll in a new location to start generating electricity on the spot.

It’s only one of the technologies South Dakota State University is exploring as part of a $10 million project to deliver alternative power technologies to help the U.S. military supply power to units in the field. The three-year project began in May 2009.

The military wants to reduce costs and make units in the field less vulnerable to attacks on supply lines necessary to transport petroleum-based fuels.

“We are focused on four tasks,” said Dennis Helder, associate dean of engineering research and professor of electrical engineering. “We’re trying to understand the military’s needs for alternative energy systems. We’re trying to develop a power management system that we think would be optimized for military use, particularly for forward operating bases. We’re also trying to design new solar cells that would be particularly advantageous to the military. And our fourth task is to set up a test facility for testing the micro-grid systems with our solar cells, along with other devices in the system, so we can see really determine experimentally how well they work.”

Wind energy is an option, too, but military planners are less interested in it because of the difficulty in transporting wind-generating facilities, and the possibility that wind turbines poking the skyline might give away troops’ location.

U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command funds the project, which now involves 23 employees at SDSU. There’s a possibility that some of the work for the military will lead to new products with applications for the military or the general public.

Radiance Technologies Inc., a Huntsville, Ala.-based company, is teamed with SDSU as a subcontractor for the power management effort. Radiance has initially established a workforce in South Dakota of four employees collocated with the SDSU team.

“We formed a partnership where the SDSU side of the project is doing the research, and the Radiance side is doing the design and development of the prototypes, and then ultimately we hope to take things to a commercialization level,” Helder said.

The military is interested in new applications for existing technologies such as flexible, polymer-based solar cells in which the electricity-generating polymer can be printed or painted onto a surface.

“We did a demonstration where we literally painted a solar cell together, stuck an electrode on it, connected it to test equipment, and we had a solar cell. It took about 10 minutes to build,” Helder said. “Making it practical and rugged and useful out in the field, though, is still a few steps away.”

There’s a possibility that the work with U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command will continue even after the initial grant is done, Helder said.

“The bottom line is, we want to save some lives. If we can help those guys out in the field to do their jobs better, then more of them will be coming home,” Helder said.

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