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Where the Army and clean tech collide

U.S. Army researchers say cutting-edge energy technologies are integral to meeting the needs of today's soldiers.

Flexible photovoltaics to power a tent. Soldier Systems Center Natick

WALTHAM, Mass.--Researchers working to equip an increasingly digitized soldier are seeking solutions to their tough demands in the commercial clean-tech sector.

Last week, I attended a presentation in which experts from the U.S. Army's Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass., detailed their very stringent needs.

The Natick center experts talked about their specialties--combat feeding, shelter and clothing--and how integral energy is to those areas of development. Although the lab develops its own products, researchers favor commercially available--and viable--technologies.

That's where the growing investor and entrepreneurial interest in clean tech comes in.

Problems like short battery life, which is a nuisance to the average laptop user, can be brutal or even life-threatening to a soldier who now relies on electronics to do his or her job.

One real-life statistic thrown out during the discussion: A soldier carried 648 AA batteries for a five-day mission. That's a lot of extra weight. And the demands for battery life are only going up as the amount of electronic gear soldiers carry around increases. Similarly, getting fuel to soldiers is a major cost and vulnerability.

Here are some of the technologies the Natick labs is exploring, most of which focus on mobility:

Solar power, woven into fabric. Martin LaMonica/CNET

-Tents with thin-film solar cells integrated in them. A 2-kilowatt tent with a PV roof is now in testing in Fort Bliss, Md.

-Rechargeable batteries that are lighter and charge faster. The Army is exploring a wide range of options, including advanced lithium ion batteries, solar rechargers and high-density fuel cells.

-LED lighting integrated into tent roofs. This has the advantage of minimizing the wiring required to set up tent lighting. And compared to fluorescent lighting, LED lighting better resembles daylight, which has a positive psychological effect on people.

-Insulation. Keeping tents at a constant temperature is a huge problem, and bulky insulation often gets discarded because it's too much trouble to install or transport. The Army lab at Natick is looking at using Aerogels--essentially an insulating blanket--that can be built into fabric.

-Portable kitchen stoves that use cogeneration--generators that create heat and electricity. This basic technology is already used for heating in industrial buildings and in the consumer arena.

-Solar clothing. The idea is to use organic solar cells that are less efficient but work well in low light and, since they are solid state, can be woven into clothing. The photo to the left is a proof-of-concept.