July 9, 2011: STRATEGY PAGE
American commanders in Afghanistan want technology that will reduce the need for electricity generators. Most of the effort to deal with this is the development of more renewable fuel sources. But there some old-school solutions as well. One of those is the microgrid technology. This approach uses software to analyze the dozens of generators a base uses now, and figure out how to replace many of the smaller generators with a few larger ones. This will significantly reduce the fuel consumption (larger generators are more fuel efficient) and maintenance effort.
The basic problem here is logistics, and the fact that about two-thirds of supply convoys are carrying fuel. This is a huge diversion of resources. Combat commanders have done the math, and with more combat units out and about these days, they are demanding more solar panels and fuel cells, in order to lower the demand for generator fuel. With all those computers and electronic gadgets out there, the demand for electricity, especially by units in combat, is huge. If each combat battalion can get by with one, or more, fewer fuel convoys a month, that means more troop support from helicopter gunships and UAVs (that would otherwise be guarding convoys). Moreover, the cost of protecting those fuel convoys makes solar-panel juice cost less than conventional generator electricity.
The war in Iraq made it clear that American combat units are huge consumers of fuel. In 2003, it was understood that turning a modern mechanized division loose meant supplying those troops at the rate of 80-120 liters (20-30 gallons, or 540-810 pounds/245-368 kg) of fuel per man per day. As the 3rd Infantry Division moved from Kuwait to Baghdad in 2003, some 20,000 troops were involved. That required some 200 tanker loads of fuel per day. Initially, the vehicles in the division carry enough fuel to go 200-300 kilometers on internal fuel. But you don't want your vehicles to run until their tanks are dry, so at least once a day, you try to top everyone off. The route of the 3rd Infantry Division covered about 700 kilometers of road. In addition to fuel, you need about a 45-90 kg (100-200 pounds) of other supplies per man per day (mostly ammo, but also batteries, food and the like.) Once inside Baghdad, and no longer moving all the time, the fuel requirement came way down. But on the march, the advancing combat brigades were tethered by convoys of fuel trucks going back and forth to the supply bases in Kuwait. But once things settled down, it was found that the use of generators, especially for air conditioning, kept fuel requirements high, which is why most of the supply trucks were still carrying fuel.
For decades, it was believed that hydrogen powered fuel cells would replace fossil fuel (in the military it's JP-5, similar to jet fuel) powered generators. But fuel cells have been the next-big-thing for nearly a century. That said, small fuel cells are beginning to appear. The U.S. Army is installing them in tanks and trucks, as a source of auxiliary power. This points out that the larger fuel cells are now quite ready to replace the large generators (the main consumer of all that fuel). While the fuel cells cost more than ten times as much as JP-5 powered generators, that JP-5 costs about 40 times more than the same fuel used back in the United States. Thus fuel cells are still a cheaper alternative. That's because of the transportation cost (up to $25/liter or $100/gallon) of fuel. Thus the more expensive fuel cell generator quickly pays for itself in a combat zone, and saves the lives of those operating and protecting all those fuel convoys.
Another use for small fuel cells is to ease the growing load of batteries carried into combat. Soldiers are sometimes carrying more batteries than bullets. For some infantry operations, especially those lasting 72 hours or longer, troops are required to haul up to 13.6 kg (30 pounds) of batteries. Special Forces are particularly hard hit by this, as they often have to go in by foot, to avoid detection, and set up a surveillance operation that consumes a lot of batteries. This is very common in Afghanistan.
Five years ago, the U.S. Air Force began using fuel cells to replace electricity generators in some of their bases. This was a field test of the technology, and after some more tweaking, the fuel cell devices proved reliable. The army adopted the air force approach, and is still developing smaller versions of fuel cells for the infantry. For example, the typical 13.6 kg load of batteries could be replaced with a 2.7 kg (six pound) fuel cell (plus another 2.7 kg of fuel.) The army is planning to use fuel cells that run off small cartridges of methanol, which are much lighter to ship, and carry, than batteries, and deliver much more electricity per pound than conventional batteries.
The lightweight fuel cells are starting to show up in the civilian market. The first models are expensive (several times the cost of a comparable gasoline powered generator), but the intended market, initially, will be backpackers, and the many soldiers who buy additional equipment with their own money. Militarized fuel cell systems are soon to enter service. But some troops are already buying the commercial versions. Toshiba offers a ten ounce (289 gram) fuel cell that can recharge two cell phones at once. But these devices cost $300 and the 50 ml (two ounce) methanol cartridge costs $30. A major problem with fuel cell devices like the Toshiba one is that it is mainly for items like cell phones and iPods, or anything that can get its charge via a USB connector. For military use, you need a device that can recharge common batteries, and specialized ones for military equipment. Technically, that is a simple matter, as is scaling up the current miniature fuel cell devices (about the size of a hand held game player) to provide more power.