The Blog

Praise the Lord and Pass the Batteries

10:36 AM, Jul 9, 2007 • By BRIAN FAUGHNAN
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One of the hallmarks of our time is a proliferation of more--and more advanced--electronic devices. Those devices need batteries--and in a variety that seems to be increasing by the day. While that's a nuisance for consumers, it can be life-threatening for a soldier:

parttwo-49.jpgFrom Battery University: The results of
battery neglect--soldiers begin carrying rocks
instead of batteries.

An infantry platoon of 40 soldiers on a 72-hour mission requires about 65 batteries per man. Outfitting a brigade on a five-day mission costs taxpayers $1.5 million in batteries.

For infantrymen loaded down with more than 100 pounds of gear, every ounce counts. Compounding the problem is a soldier's tendency to take more than he needs "just in case," officials said...

One major concern is a lack of uniformity, the engineers said. The approximately 12 systems soldiers can carry on their person use nine different types of batteries operating independently from each other. That raises the dangerous scenario of a soldier having to stop in the middle of battle to swap out a set of batteries on his communications systems, then a few minutes later, taking cover to load new batteries in his weapon scope.

They "can't expect the enemy to just stop shooting," Schimmel said.

Batteries have been a DoD concern for years now and have forced a consideration of alternate power sources. In particular, the acquisition of batteries and generators in Iraq has been a nightmare.

Now DoD--In the spirit of the Lord of the Rings--will award a million dollar prize for the one battery:

The increasing number of electronic gadgets carried by American soldiers in the field has prompted the Pentagon to hold a $1 million competition for developers to invent a better battery pack...

The competition will take place in fall 2008, and the winner will receive a $1 million prize. Second place will receive $500,000 and third place will be awarded $250,000.

The objective of the competition is to develop a wearable, prototype system that can power a standard soldier's equipment, or an average of 20 watts, for 96 hours but weighs less than half that of current batteries, or less than 4 kilograms (8.8 pounds). All components, including the power generator, electrical storage, control electronics, connectors and fuel must weigh four kilograms or less, including all attachments.

The lightest system (weighing 4 kilograms or less) will be the winner. In the case of systems with identical weights, a "wearability" criterion -- measured by the maximum thickness that a system protrudes from the body when attached to a garment, with the thinnest system being judged the winner -- will be used as a tie breaker.

The US government and the private sector are increasingly turning to prizes to encourage technology breakthroughs. There's the X Prize, the automotive X prize, the space elevator prize, and the H prize, to name a few. DARPA has also used the system, notably for the Grand Challenge. Economists and others have argued that prizes are more effective than subsidies in encouraging innovative breakthroughs, and the proliferation of prizes reflects that wisdom. If the technology is there for a battery breakthrough, this may be the best way to achieve it.

The DoD site for the contest is here. If you want to get in, there will be a public information forum in the DC area in September.