Army's portable power looks to charge battlefield

Portable systems essential to high-tech gear worn by soldiers

The Army consumes scores of batteries to power communications equipment, night vision systems and battlefield sensors that soldiers use in the field. 

Powering all those systems requires troops to carry batteries in the field and strains logistics systems. The service is now developing a variety of technologies to power soldiers’ kits and shorten supply lines.

Much of the tactical-level power research is the responsibility of the Army’s Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center at Fort Monmouth, N.J. Speaking at a recent CERDEC event, Rafael Casanova, battery team leader at the command’s Army Power division, outlined some of his organization’s research.

CERDEC is developing new power sources for the Army’s Brigade Combat Team Modernization program, and Casanova said renewable energy is one of the thrusts of that research. The work focuses on three areas: solar power systems, rechargeable batteries and fuel cells.

The Army has sent one solar-powered battery-charging system to Afghanistan for an in-theater evaluation. The Rucksack Enhanced Portable Power System kit consists of a 55-watt solar panel, a charge controller, an AC/DC adapter, plugs and charging-related gear. It is designed to let warfighters charge batteries or power equipment in the field. Casanova said REPPS has received a lot of positive feedback and requests from warfighters in the field, adding that it should be available in the Army’s inventory by year's end or early 2011.

Reducing the weight of troops’ equipment is another part of the division’s work. Casanova’s team is developing a half-sized battery that might replace existing batteries used in tactical radios. The BA-6590 battery is designed to have half the weight and occupy half the space of the BA-5590, the most widely used military battery. In addition to having half the weight and size, he said the BA-6590 provides the same power capacity that the older battery does.

CERDEC scientists are examining two chemistry formulas for the BA-6590. The first is lithium carbon monoflouride, the furthest along in development. Casanova said the battery has undergone some field evaluations with warfighters, and that version of the battery has the potential to be available to soldiers in the next two to three years.

Another battery chemistry is lithium air, which offers higher capacity. It would provide double to triple the capacity of the full-sized BA-5590 battery but in half the size. However, Casanova cautioned that this work is still at a preliminary testing phase. He said he expects the technology to be available to warfighters in the next five years.

CERDEC also is working with the Army Research Laboratory to develop a wearable battery that fits onto a soldier’s body armor to power equipment such as night vision goggles and radios. Because that battery is lightweight and out of the way, it provides more flexibility and mobility, Casanova said.

The wearable battery program is a joint effort of ARL and the Natick Solider Systems Center, and the laboratory is evaluating four different designs. Casanova said he expects a light unit test of the four designs in November. He said those systems are working prototypes, and some limited field tests using prototypes were conducted during the C4ISR On-The-Move exercise at Fort Dix, N.J. The command will evaluate some of those designs in November at a live user test at Fort Riley, Kan.

Researchers also are working on fuel cells. CERDEC is developing fuel cells that range from 25-watt portable devices to 500-watt fuel cell systems that can power equipment in a tactical operations center. Another research effort is developing a 300-watt fuel cell that will be ready for evaluation in the field in November. Casanova said there are three different designs, each using a different type of fuel.

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