TTU works to power soldiers on the battlefield with million dollar grant

On the battlefield, soldiers carry around their own enemies that are noisy, heavy, and have the potential to lead other enemies straight to them — they are the electro-mechanical devices that power modern, high-tech equipment.

The Department of Defense is searching for better power sources for the U.S. Army to use on the battlefield, so they recently committed $1 million to an Advanced Portable Power Institute led by Tennessee Tech University. Through the institute, Tennessee Tech researchers are working on a whole range of advanced power sources to reduce the noise, weight and thermal signature of battlefield equipment and vehicles.

"Modern warfare is increasingly dependent on electronic devices," said Glen Johnson, TTU's College of Engineering dean. "But soldiers need to be mobile and travel away from large power sources. Our goal is to provide compact, lightweight, quiet portable sources with the same energy storage as the current equipment."

Not only would these new power sources increase soldiers' comfort and mobility, they would better protect their lives. Noise and heat are two main ways to detect enemy targets. Current portable power sources, as well as vehicles powered by combustion systems, produce noise and heat that could be eliminated with advanced technology being developed through the new institute.

TTU leads the collaborative effort with Vanderbilt University, the University of Missouri at Columbia and the International Technology Center in North Carolina. The institutions have divided the technical work on power sources, with TTU specializing in batteries and fuel cell development as well as the hybrid use of fuel cells.

As devices worn by soldiers have become more sophisticated, the weight of their equipment has increased. For instance, night vision equipment requires batteries that have to be recharged in the field, an inconvenient maneuver with cumbersome equipment at best under battle conditions.

TTU's Chunsheng Wang, an assistant professor of chemical engineering, is addressing the issue by developing a fuel cell that can charge the battery, and he hopes to create a cell that will totally replace the battery. The wearable fuel cell would be smaller and lighter than current batteries.

Another goal is to use fuel cell technology to create a more powerful, stealthy vehicle for the Army, one that runs on standard Army fuel.

TTU chemical engineering assistant professor Venkat Subramanian and his research group are working on lithium-ion batteries to power battlefield vehicles. They aim to demonstrate how batteries and fuel cells can be controlled in real-time with a computer, an essential piece of the puzzle that must be in place before hybrid power systems can be used in automobiles on a practical basis.

John Zhu's research as a TTU mechanical engineering associate professor focuses on solid oxide fuel cells, which operate at high temperatures and generate a lot of power. But the current materials used are expensive, hard to fabricate and very brittle, so he is working to find alternative materials that will allow the cells to be used with standard Army fuel.

"While these are critical issues to solve for warfare, there will be spinoff civilian applications for these new technologies," said Johnson. "We can continue to decrease the size and increase the rechargability of batteries to power our cell phones, Blackberries, digital cameras and computers.

"Our research also brings the promise of devices that can be used to generate and store power in individual homes," he said.  "And certainly if we are successful at powering military vehicles, we will open the door to a practical, powerful and cost-efficient personal vehicle."