Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Alternative Fuel Fantasies for Military

The generation, storage, and distribution of energy, especially on the battlefield, have always been essential to sustaining military operations. Consequently, reducing fuel use would mean less transportation requirements and less danger for soldiers.

But the facts is that except for nuclear submarines and nuclear aircraft carries military runs on oil. It was so in the past, it is so today and it will be so tomorrow.

Oil can be replaced by some alternative energy sources for facility use but for mobility oil has no real competitor. Not only because oil is the best energy source but because current and future combat fleet are designed to run on oil. Even if we had found excellent oil substitute it would be too difficult, impractical and costly to modify or change hundreds of thousands of engines.

Sure, we should be optimistic. But optimism has some limits. I read a lot on military and oil (bed time and weekend readings, to be honest). OK. Back to oil now...

Sometimes I come across futuristic thoughts about the alternative fuels and their use in military. Here are some examples I recently read.

Pfeffer and Macon[1] say that “While each alternative energy source is useful, none provides the complete range of options currently offered by oil. It is here that thinking ‘outside the box’ is needed.” I completely agree but it is good to put the limits to that box, no?

They think of using nuclear to produce hydrogen: “For the military, a small nuclear power plant could fit on a barge and be deployed to a remote theater, where it could produce both hydrogen fuel and potable water for use by U.S. and coalition forces in time of conflict.”

They go further with the claim that “The Army also considered using nuclear power plants overseas to provide uninterrupted power and defense support in the event that U.S. installations were cut off from their normal logistics supply lines.” Strange, but I have never seen any general said that.

His conclusion: “Nuclear power is expected to grow in the 21st century, with potential benefits applicable to the military. Small, modular nuclear power reactors in mobile or portable configurations, coupled with hydrogen production and desalination systems, could be used to produce fuel and potable water for combat forces deployed in remote areas and reduce our logistics requirements.” How convenient!

Aliberti and Bruen[2] ask what if instant, usable energy were available where and when it was needed. They refer to this as energy on demand (EoD).

They argue that fuel cells are an extremely attractive source of energy for tomorrow’s battlefield. “They will provide the warfighter with increased mobility, and they will enable information systems to function reliably and efficiently during lengthy battlefield missions. Because of its compactness, the proton exchange membrane fuel cell, in particular, will be a prime candidate for vehicles and other mobile applications.”

After talking about Bioenergy systems, the authors claim that “Renewable energy generated from sources such as wind, light, sound, and water is sure to appear on future battlefields....Units engaged in stationary field operations also will be able to generate energy from nonorganic waste, such as plastic packaging.” Cool!

Here is their conclusion: ”In the far term, energy generation, storage, and distribution to the point of effect when needed could be achieved with a space-based satellite system. Energy generation could take place in space, on earth, or in the atmosphere from multiple sources. A space-based satellite system would allow energy to be distributed to warfighters regardless of their location or energy requirements. Because energy distribution will be space-based, energy generation sources (nodes) could be fixed, mobile, space based, or earth based.”

At least they don’t think that it could be achieved by 2030.

Some portions of EoD are achievable by 2030.

What is more interesting is the new fuel cell technology developed by Battelle.

In its corporate magazine article (Innovative fuel cell technology generates power for military vehicles and more) Battelle says that it “has demonstrated a working fuel cell system, fully integrated and capable of providing auxiliary power for the U.S. Army’s Bradley Fighting Vehicle. In conjunction with military and commercial partners, the first-generation, two-kilowatt, functioning fuel cell system demonstrated that this type of auxiliary power could be generated cleanly and efficiently. Equally important, it’s quiet in the field—a must for military vehicles—and has a size and weight configuration compatible with military vehicle requirements.”

In Another one (Battelle Powers the Military with a Cleaner and More Efficiently Used Fuel) it gives more information. “Running a noisy, hot generator in a war zone can give away your position. Not running it can leave you without power for communications, air-conditioning, heat, and other critical systems.” Battelle is “developing methods to enable use of existing military fuel for fuel cells, which operate silently and at increased efficiency.
It is “developing a single system to convert military fuel (JP-8) into sufficient hydrogen to generate 10 kW of electrical power, which is enough energy to run critical air-conditioning or communications systems for hours inside an armored vehicle.”

I am confused. But let’s go on.

Because the sulfur content of logistics fuels (jet fuel and diesel) “is damaging to both the fuel reforming catalyst and the fuel cell itself, one of the key technical challenges for fuel cell systems is the requirement to remove sulfur from the fuel prior to reforming to prevent system degradation."

Therefore “Battelle’s fuel cell power system operates by significantly reducing the level of sulfur in the fuel, then converting it to hydrogen in a Battelle-developed microchannel steam reformer. Reformation of battlefield fuels to hydrogen allows use of the fuel cell to generate electricity.”

“Battelle previously demonstrated the conversion of sulfur-free diesel for fuel cell power generation on an armored vehicle. Engineers at Battelle integrated and installed a fuel reformation and hydrogen purification system in a prototype fuel cell auxiliary power unit and operated the unit on sulfur-free synthetic jet fuel.”

I am confused again. Let me tell what I understood. You will use JP-8, remove sulfur in it, then convert it to hydrogen and call it more efficient. And you will do it in a battlefield, ha?

OK. Now it get clearer...

Another article dated 16 December 2006 (Battelle has high expectations for refining hydrogen fuel cell): “Battelle hopes its portable hydrogen fuel cell will someday help the military win battles….The technology works by running a fuel, usually a liquid hydrocarbon, through a device called a reformer to remove the hydrogen.…The Ohio Department of Development said it is impressed and pitched in $900,000 in state money to help Battelle refine the technology and to tour military bases to show off its work. …. Battelle has to reduce the cost of the 5-kilowatt power source from about $28,500 a kilowatt now to about $10,000 a kilowatt…..Another problem is that for the time being, fuel cells use liquid fossil fuels such as diesel to operate. That, in turn, produces carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.”

And then on 19 December 2006 we had the following news release from Robins Air Force Base (Ga) (Hydrogen fuel cell outperforms diesel counterpart):

“During the demonstration [Air Base], halogen light units were powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, and also by a current generation light cart using diesel fuel. The diesel generator produced toxic emissions, an odor and considerable noise, along with electric power. The hydrogen fuel cell produced electric power with no emissions, no odor and almost no noise….the hydrogen fuel cell is 25 percent more fuel efficient than diesels….The fuel used for the demonstration is S-8, the synthetic fuel used as a substitute for JP-8 jet fuel, which also powers ground devices such as airfield lights. It was synthesized using the Fischer-Tropsch (FT) synthetic fuel process.”

And now here it comes: "If we could get enough FT fuel to the battlefield, we could use the fuel cell now," Mr. Melaragno said. "However, we will have to use JP-8 because FT fuel isn't available in quantity yet, while JP-8 is."


I wonder whether Battelle has ever heard something like Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI)?

Another brilliant idea comes from a TimesOnline article (Army saves by topping up tanks with chip oil) by Chris Gourlay on December 24, 2006.

The UK Ministry of Defence told British troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and other military bases around the world to recycle used cooking oil as fuel for military vehicles, armoured Land Rovers and Warriors.

Times article argues that “The new plan may enable precious diesel to be bulked out with cleaned-up chip oil and other waste. In addition, the recycled material could be sold on the domestic heating market.“

Great idea! Collect used oil from frying food, siphon off, filter and re-use as a fuel.

And when your troops run out of gasoline tell them to eat more fries!

Indeed, it would be perfectly fine for McDonalds. Open a McDiesel at each McDonalds! Maybe UK Ministry of Defense was thinking of finding a McDiesel station in combat field.

[1] Robert A. Pfeffer and William A. Macon, Jr., “Nuclear Power: An Option for the Army's Future”, Army Logistician, September-October 2001.
[2] Dr. Keith Aliberti and Thomas L. Bruen, “Energy on Demand “, Army logistician, Vol 39, Issue 1, January-February 2007.

Tags: Military Energy Consumption, Alternative Fuels, Fuel Cells


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