The availability of instant, usable energy may
revolutionize the way
combat operations are supported in the future battlespace.
Editor’s note: This
is the fourth in a series of five articles on themes for future
logistics innovation identified
by the Army Logistics Innovation Agency’s Futures Group.
Each of the articles describes plausible future advances in
technology and business processes that may significantly improve
logistics effectiveness and efficiency. Together, they bring
an advanced look at some amazing possibilities for Army logistics.
The fifth article is titled Prediction and Cooperation.
The generation, storage,
and distribution of energy on the battlefield have always been
essential to sustaining military operations. This is especially
true today as evidenced by the challenges facing our forces
in multiple training and operational situations across the
globe. Army and Marine Corps units participating in Operation
Iraqi Freedom (OIF), for example, have experienced shortages
of supplies, including certain types of lithium batteries that
power myriad communications and electronics systems. Fuel distribution
in the early months of OIF was not a problem because the U.S.
military had the luxury of extraordinary planning and rehearsal
time. However, future battles in other regions may not offer
the same preparation time or the same access to, and abundance
of, energy sources.
It is important to point out that a recent study indicated
that 70 percent of the convoys in Iraq transport fuel—ideal
targets for our enemies. Transporting enormous quantities of
fuel over vulnerable supply lines equates to an Achilles heel
for an otherwise unmatched Army.
In an increasingly nonlinear battlespace, especially as portrayed
in joint operating concepts for the 2015–2025 timeframe,
meeting the needs of widely distributed, energy-hungry military
forces will demand innovative solutions. The proliferation
of high-energy weapons in the battlespace will only contribute
to increased energy requirements and, without proper long-range
planning, may handicap future forces. While solving today’s
logistics challenges is the most immediate concern, logisticians
must plan ahead for the changes in doctrine, organization,
training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, and
facilities (DOTMLPF) that will be necessary as a result of
scientific and engineering advances in energy sources.
Shrinking the military services’ dependence on fuel would
reduce transportation requirements and decrease the number
of Soldiers placed in harm’s way. This could be achieved
by, for example, increasing the efficiency of military equipment,
thereby reducing energy usage and distribution requirements.
However what if instant, usable energy were available at the
point of effect (where and when it was needed)? We refer to
this as energy on demand (EoD).
The goal of EoD is to reduce operation and sustainment costs
dramatically and to minimize significantly the need to transport
some types of energy sources to the battlefield. While the
tendency is to think in terms of vehicular propulsion requirements,
the future battlespace is likely to involve extraordinary energy
demands for all types of military equipment and weapon systems.
EoD presupposes maximum energy conversion efficiencies, ubiquitous
energy storage, extreme energy densities (as compared to today’s
typical energy densities), onsite energy production and use,
and networked energy distribution. (Energy density is the amount
of energy stored in a given system or region of space per unit
volume or per unit mass.) The idea is to produce platform and
system energy in amounts that will support sustained combat
operations under all conditions.
In this article, we talk about some of the exciting possibilities
that scientific and technological advances toward EoD will
have on future Army logistics. We present some basic concepts
of energy generation, storage, and distribution and offer a
glimpse of future networked energy grids that may revolutionize
the way energy is distributed to support sustained combat operations
under all conditions.
EoD encompasses generation, storage, and distribution. Energy
generation generally refers to the transformation of chemical
energy, solar energy, biomass energy, and other forms of
energy into electrical energy. Energy generation also seeks
to maximize the efficiency of energy conversion.
Coupled closely with energy generation is energy storage, the
goal of which is maximize energy density. Renewable energy
generation from wind and solar energy sources, for example,
is intermittent because of either atmospheric conditions or
time of day. Advances in storing energy from such renewable
sources will allow supply at the point of effect.
Energy distribution will play an increasingly important role
in fulfilling the energy demands encountered on tomorrow’s
battlefield. Distribution will be achieved with smart grids
that can meet the long-term energy needs of a deployed force
and with flexible, plug-and-play, self-regulating microgrids
capable of interfacing with each other. Military energy distribution
grids of the future will maximize commonality and interoperability
while emphasizing battlefield flexibility and distribution.
fuel cell operation.
(Art by Eric Proctor of the Sensors and Electron
Devices Directorate of the Army Research Laboratory.)
Energy Generation and Storage
Fuel cells. Fuel cells are devices that convert the chemical
energy of a fuel (such as hydrogen, natural gas, methanol,
or gasoline) and an oxidant (such as air or oxygen) into
electricity. In principle, fuel cells operate like batteries.
However, unlike batteries, fuel cells are designed for continuous
replenishment of the reactants consumed. Continuous long-term
operation is feasible as long as a fuel and an oxidizer are
supplied to the cell.
Fuel cells, like batteries, have two electrodes (metal plates)—a
positively charged anode (fuel electrode) and a negatively
charged cathode (oxidant electrode). In addition to the electrodes,
fuel cells have an
ion-conducting material called an electrolyte sandwiched between
the electrodes. The electrolyte carries charged particles from
one electrode to the other. Finally, there is a catalyst that
speeds up the reactions at the electrodes.
Currently, six types of fuel cells either exist or are being
researched. Fuel cells are classified by their electrolyte
material because this material determines what chemical reactions
take place in the cell, the catalysts required, the operational
temperature of the cell, and the fuel required. For military
applications, each of these factors must be taken into account
to find fuel cells suitable for certain applications. Types
of fuel cells include proton exchange membrane, direct methanol,
alkaline, molten carbonate, phosphoric acid, and solid oxide.
Fuel cells work by producing an electrical current. To understand
the basics of fuel cell operation, consider a fuel cell that
works with hydrogen as a fuel. In the illustration above, hydrogen
atoms are directed toward an anode that splits the atoms into
protons and electrons. The protons enter the fuel cell at the
anode while the electrons are directed through a circuit. The
protons travel through the electrolyte to the cathode. At the
same time, oxygen enters the fuel cell at the cathode, where
it combines with the electrons and protons to form water. Note
that the electrolyte plays a crucial role: It allows the passage
of protons to prevent adverse chemical reactions from taking
place in the cathode. Heat and water are byproducts of this
reaction and can be captured for other purposes. This type
of fuel cell will generate electricity as long as it is supplied
with hydrogen and oxygen.
With such ease of operation, one might ask, “Why can’t
I just go out and buy a fuel cell?” Fuel cells are starting
to appear on the commercial market, but a number of challenges
inhibit widespread availability. Cost and durability are two
major challenges. Others include size, weight, and thermal
and water management. Fueling hydrogen fuel cells, in particular,
is a challenge because production, transportation, distribution,
and storage of hydrogen are difficult, especially on the battlefield.
Producing hydrogen using a reformer is also technically challenging.
A hydrogen reformer is a device that extracts hydrogen from
other fuels, typically methanol or gasoline.) Aside from these
technical issues, the infrastructure is not available to support
large-scale conversion of military systems to operate on alternative
energy sources such as fuel cells.
Over the next few decades, however, fuel cell size and cost
will decrease. Reformer technologies will improve to the point
that the generation and storage of energy in the form of a
fuel—most commonly hydrogen—will become realities.
Moreover, this fuel can be renewably derived from water and
clean energy. The coming “hydrogen economy” will
enable energy systems that are safer, cleaner, and more versatile
than the systems in use today. In the future, fuel cells will
power numerous electronic devices. Fuel cells also will play
a critical role in helping to displace fossil fuels as the
primary source of our future military energy infrastructure.
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.
Biomass energy. Biomass refers to any plant-derived organic
matter available on a renewable basis, including dedicated
energy crops (such as corn), trees, feed crops, agricultural
crop wastes and residues, aquatic plants, animal waste, and
municipal waste. Biomass energy technologies seek to use these
renewable biomass resources to produce an array of energy-related
products, including electricity; liquid, solid, and gaseous
fuels; and heat and chemicals. Biomass energy (bioenergy) has
tremendous potential for development, in part because biomass
stores its energy until it is extracted. As a result, biomass
offers tremendous opportunities for creating sustainable resources
that provide energy sources to the future battlefield.
Bioenergy is not really new; energy from plants and plant-derived
materials has been used for centuries. Wood, for example, is
still the largest bioenergy resource available today. Currently,
there are four classes of bioenergy systems: direct-fired,
co-fired, gasification, and modular. Most systems are direct-fired;
biomass fuel is burned in a boiler to produce high-pressure
steam that causes a turbine to rotate, thereby producing electricity.
Co-fired systems involve substituting biomass for a portion
of the coal used in an existing power plant furnace. Gasification
systems operate by heating biomass in an environment in which
solid biomass breaks down to form a flammable gas. A modular
system is perhaps the most important bioenergy system to EoD.
Modular systems employ some of the same technologies mentioned
above, but on a much smaller scale. This could permit sustainment
of units deployed in remote areas where biomass is readily
available but electricity is scarce.
Other forms of energy. In addition to the expanded use of fuel
cells and biomass on the future battlefield, other forms of
energy generation and storage are viable and will become more
readily available. Renewable energy generated from sources
such as wind, light, sound, and water is sure to appear on
future battlefields. The emergence of Future Combat Systems
and associated unattended ground sensors will require alternative
forms of energy to alleviate and potentially eliminate the
need for an infrastructure (batteries) to supply energy to
these sensors. Units engaged in stationary field operations
also will be able to generate energy from nonorganic waste,
such as plastic packaging. This would decrease the personnel,
fuel, and critical transport equipment needed to remove and
dispose of such waste.
Harnessing the energy content of waste generated during military
field operations would reduce military logistics requirements
in two ways: It would provide fuel for on-site energy generation,
and it would dispose of waste that otherwise might have to
be transported from the battlefield. This form of energy generation
and storage could replace much of the fuel needs for electrical
power generation in the field, thereby saving the military
services millions of gallons of costly diesel fuel. It also
could significantly reduce the logistics resources required
to deliver fuel to deployed forces.
energy sources for the
(Art by Eric Proctor
of the Sensors and
Directorate of the Army Research Laboratory.)
Energy Distribution: Smart Grids and Microgrids
It takes energy to move energy. Energy generated at certain
locations (often remote) must be distributed for use. Pipelines,
ships, trains, and trucks carry fossil fuels from point to
point, while power lines carry electricity from point to
point. Significant energy is expended transporting fuels,
and current power grids suffer from electrical resistance
and load unpredictability.
To be more efficient, energy distribution networks must have
new materials and advanced logistics systems. Large-scale use
of distributed and intermittent renewable resources, such as
solar energy and wind, requires intelligent, networked grids
to deliver power efficiently over long distances. Lengthy and
vulnerable supply lines fuel large diesel generators that supply
energy to myriad devices that support military operations.
Current energy distribution systems cannot adapt to changing
energy demands and generally are inefficient as a means of
transporting or transmitting energy. Energy transport and transmission
and distribution systems must be safe, secure, reliable, sustainable,
and cost effective. Smart grids and microgrids offer the potential
to meet all of these criteria for the future Army.
Smart grids. Smart grids promise intelligent, efficient energy
distribution because they will be able to adapt to ever-changing
energy demands. Truly intelligent electrical grids should be
able to accept and feed electricity to remote sites. As energy
demands increase on the future battlefield, the Army will need
distributed storage and generation smart grids that can detect
usage levels and immediately adjust their operation for greatest
benefit. Intelligent distributed energy generation is certainly
within the realm of the possible, but it will require some
Smart grids must have the ability to deal with intermittent
renewable energy sources such as remote solar and wind farms
and, at the same time, accept energy from constant sources
such as fuel cells. Smart grids will be adaptable and have
the ability to support computer software upgrades, along with
new hardware such as superconducting fault current limiters,
transformers and storage devices, digital power controllers,
and next-generation nanotechnology transmission lines. Smart
grid management will use digital control, automated analysis
of problems, and automatic switching capabilities such as those
currently employed by the Internet. Advanced
routers that can break energy into packets for distribution
over various routes to relieve congestion (comparable to those
used in computer networks) also will be necessary.
Smart grids will be interconnected to a web of other infrastructure
grids, including water, gas, telecommunications, transportation,
automation, and fuel systems. As part of an integrated infrastructure,
smart grids will require computer simulators and threat simulators
to monitor complete grid activity. Inexpensive electronic devices
will be attached to most elements of a smart grid. These devices
will have memory and processing capabilities that can identify
parts. Their location will be detectable by a global positioning
system, and they will communicate wirelessly with central command
and control centers. Real-time sensing and control of future
grids is needed for complete end-to-end generation, storage,
and distribution of energy.
High-temperature superconductivity and nanoscale technologies
are expected to deliver several breakthroughs that could revolutionize
smart grids. “Quantum wire,” which is woven rope
made from carbon nanotubes, could have electrical conductivity
that is higher than that of copper at one-sixth the weight
and twice the strength of steel. (See “Designer Materials” in
the November–December issue of Army Logistician.) A grid
made up of quantum wires would have no line losses, thus alleviating
the need for certain emergency energy-generation capabilities.
Microgrids. Unlike smart grids, microgrids are smaller “community” networks
of diverse energy-generation sources, such as solar energy,
wind, and fuel, which have the potential to transform the “electricity
network” in the same way that the Internet changed “distributed
communication.” More specifically, microgrids consist
of small collections of power-generating technologies that
are suitable for a collection of users who are in close proximity
to the generation source. These types of grids have EoD capabilities
that make them particularly useful to an adaptable force.
Microgrids are often compared to peer-to-peer file-sharing
technologies, in which demand is split up
and shared around a network of “users.” They could
exist as stand-alone power networks within small communities,
or they could be connected to larger power-generating communities.
For example, they could be plugged into a smart grid.
Microgrids can provide safe and secure energy distribution
for military operations because of the many energy-generation
types that are incorporated into their distribution process.
They are reliable because of their small network size and redundancy
of generation and storage. They are sustainable because they
use renewable energy technologies, and they are cost-effective
because they use renewable energy sources. For military applications,
microgrids are particularly attractive because they can deal
more efficiently with fluctuating power demands.
concept of a satellite beaming energy from space.
(Art by Eric Proctor of the Sensors and Electron
Devices Directorate of the Army Research Laboratory.)
The Deep Future
How can the envisioned EoD condition be achieved? 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
The ultimate goal of EoD is the ability to distribute energy from any one of
the many energy generation or storage nodes to any location, in sufficient
quantity, on demand. Achieving that goal would mean near or complete elimination
fuels and perhaps the entire current energy distribution infrastructure.
The benefit of EoD to Army logistics is significant both on and off the battlefield.
At the theater level, future energy sources will reduce the need for hydrocarbon-powered
systems. This capability will enable the combatant commander to meet mission
requirements with fewer support organizations in theater, thereby reducing
the logistics footprint and increasing Army and joint force deployability and
The use of multiple energy sources will give the commander several options
for energy generation and use (local sources or organically generated) and
operational readiness while reducing force vulnerabilities. Army installations
will be able to minimize costs by generating energy using organic waste and
other feedstock. This will allow for decreases in energy requirements, thereby
maximum use of all available assets to support the mission.
Distribution and delivery of energy will be affected significantly as well.
Future advances in materials technology will enable more efficient storage
and use of
energy that may improve support unit deployability and battlefield distribution.
These increased energy capabilities will relieve future combatant commanders
of the tremendous burden inherent in distributing fuel in the battlespace.
They will have more time to focus on other complex operational and logistics
From simplifying force-reception challenges to reducing vulnerabilities in
sustaining stability operations, EoD promises to increase operational flexibility
Some portions of EoD are achievable by 2030. A major breakthrough, particularly
in fuel cell technology, is probable before 2030. Technology advances in photovoltaics
(solar power technology), bio feedstock conversion, fuel cells, capacitors,
remote refueling systems, satellite-based power units, fuel reformers, and
are critical path drivers to EoD’s ultimate feasibility and success. Some
advances or breakthroughs will probably be available for “spiraling out” to
the Army or joint force before complete EoD is accomplished. Depending on the
technology adopted, radical changes to tactical and operational logistics capabilities
may occur, which will trigger new and significant DOTMLPF implications.
Research is underway in all energy-related areas as the Nation seeks to eliminate
its dependence on foreign oil. Several technical advances have occurred in
the use of organic feedstock to produce electricity. Commercial large-scale
converters have been marketed, and it may be possible to reduce them in size
so they can be used on the battlefield. Photovoltaics is a heavily commercialized
area that enjoys significant developmental funding outside of the Department
of Defense. Advances in solar power are occurring with breakthroughs in more
efficient materials and designs. Multijunction, thin-film
nanoscale solar cells are in development, promising up to 50-percent energy
conversion. Recently, a major scientific breakthrough occurred in the stabilization
of anti-matter, a first step toward unlocking the door to the most powerful
energy source currently known to man. In the coming age of directed-energy
the implications for rearming and refueling are enormous.
Logisticians must demonstrate a willingness to investigate innovative concepts
and technologies leading to onsite usable energy and power systems at the point
of effect in the battlespace. We should develop a basic understanding of the
scientific and technological underpinnings of these capabilities in order to
influence policies and procedures that deal with the generation, storage, distribution,
utilization, and standardization of new energy technologies.
Dr. Keith Aliberti is a research physicist in the Sensors and Electron Devices
Directorate at the Army Research Laboratory at Adelphi, Maryland. He currently
serves as the laboratory’s liaison officer to the Army Logistics Innovation
Agency at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. He has a B.S. degree in physics from Rensselaer
Polytechnic Institute and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from the State University of
New York at Albany.
Thomas L. Bruen is a logistics management specialist at the Army Logistics Innovation
Agency at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. He has a bachelor’s degree in engineering
from the U.S. Military Academy and is a graduate of the Army Management Staff
College’s Sustaining Base Leadership Management Program.