5 Ways the US Military is Greening Up Its Act - From Solar-Powered Bases to Barnacle-Clearing Robots

army afghanistan deployment photo

photo: Army.mil via flickr.

Let's leave aside for the moment the fact that military vehicles are some of the most fuel-inefficient out there, and issues with wars and environmental degradation. In light of Veteran's Day, let's take a look at just some of the great ways the US Military is embracing greener technologies:

soldier training photo

photo: US Army

1. Solar Powered Army Bases

Construction won't begin on the planned 500 MW of solar power projects at Fort Irwin until 2011, but with all that California desert space it seems a prime spot for some solar thermal or photovoltaic power generation. Back in October, Brigadier General Robert Abrams said that five spots had already been picked for the projects.

Brig. Gen. Abrams also addressed concerns about the water intensity of solar thermal power, saying, "We're very aware that for our concentrating solar thermal technologies that water use is something we must optimize. The fact that you have wastewater here on the post is one of the reasons why the Fort Irwin facility is such a prime location for such a solar energy development."

F/A-18 super hornet photo

photo: Wikipedia

2. Navy Tests Aviation Biofuels in Fighter Jets

The Navy has seen the writing on the wall: If it wants secure sources of aviation fuel, ones which aren't sourced from places it's just going to have to fight to keep or ones which aren't going to start becoming more and more expensive, growing your own is the way to go.

Towards that it has begun tests of aviation biofuels for use in the F/A-18 Super Hornet. The plan is to test the performance jatropha, camelina, algae and other feedstocks, initially in a 50-50 blend with petroleum-based fuels.

While the big question is whether enough of any of these can be grown sustainably to supply the prodigious demand of either military or civilian aviation, tests by commercial airlines have shown biofuels to be more fuel efficient that petro-fuels -- and in the case of camelina, have at least 80% lower lifecycle emissions.

TGER photo

photo: US Army

3. Army Makes Electricity From Garbage

Solar powered bases are one thing -- Fort Irwin isn't going anywhere -- but what to do when your base is in some far flung corner of the world and put up on the fly? Enter the TGER, or Tactical Garbage to Energy Refinery.

Yes, it's pronounced 'tiger' and has been tested in Baghdad. Mixed trash is placed in the machine and separated into wet and dry waste. The dry waste is crushed and pelletized, with these then being gasified to generate electricity. The wet waste is converted into ethanol and also turned into electricity. Each unit has a capacity of 60 kilowatts.

The impetus behind this sort of machine is to reduce the amount of waste that has to be removed from bases, especially in hostile situations where the waste would have to be sent by diesel-fueled truck and that diesel fuel brought in. All having to be done in guarded convoys that are tempting military targets.

M25 portable fuel cell photo

photo: Smart Fuel Cell

4. Portable Fuel Cells Power Battle Gear

On an even more granular level than forward bases, the Army is also testing portable fuel cells to power the electronic gear soldiers increasingly have to carry.

The M-25 portable fuel cell is being worked on by Dupont and SFC Smart Fuel Cell AG. Designed to provide sustained power of 25 watts (peak 80w) from 300 mL methanol cartridges, the whole unit weighs two pounds -- a weight Dupont points out is 80% lighter than currently-used power sources.

Hull BUG photo

photo: US Navy

5. Navy Robots Clear Barnacles, Reduce Fuel Consumption

Anyone who's done any bit of sailing knows that barnacles and biofilms can increase drag on the ship. Heck, in the golden days of sail, if a ship hadn't been cleaned in a while there'd be a veritable forest of seaweed down there. Today the Navy estimates that this additional drag can increase fuel consumption by 40%.

The solution? The Robotic Hull Bio-Inspired Underwater Grooming Tool (Hull BUG is probably easier...).

While in port, this new autonomous robot senses where a ship isn't clean and goes to work cleaning barnacles, oysters and biofilm from the ship's hull. As the Navy spends an estimated $500 million a year in additional fuel costs and maintenance, the Hull BUG is a very much welcome addition to the fleet.

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