Energy Technology and the Military

 | Jul 15, 2013 | 6:00 PM EDT  | Comments
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Although the National Security Agency had been using information technology that blows some people's minds, the NSA does not have a monopoly on technology. Other U.S. agencies also have access to some incredible ideas. In fact, some mind-blowing technologies are popping up in energy.

The U.S. Department of Defense consumes more than $15 billion worth of energy each year. In 2010, the DoD used more than 500 trillion British thermal units (Btu) worth of jet fuel, more than 135 trillion Btus of fuel oil, more than 18 trillion Btus of motor gasoline and almost 3 trillion Btus of other petroleum, according to the DoD's own statement. This is in addition to nuclear, renewable and other forms of energy.

It is understandable that the DoD has been an important source of new energy technologies. Many of its technologies have found their way to the private sector.

An example is nuclear power. The technology originated from the U.S. Navy's Shippingport Atomic Power Station, which was the world's first nuclear power plant devoted exclusively to peacetime use. It was designed, developed and operated by U.S. Navy's Admiral Hyman G. Rickover. This 60-megawatt power plant operated near FirstEnergy's (FE) Beaver Valley Nuclear Generating Station, about 25 miles from Pittsburgh. It operated from 1957 to 1982.

Incredibly, thorium was used at Shippingport. In 1977, thorium dioxide was mixed with uranium-233 and loaded into Shippingport's core. Today, many forward-thinking designers believe that thorium is the nuclear fuel of the future.

Fast-forward to 2013. In September, the Pentagon will participate in its third annual Defense Energy Technology Challenge. The event is held as part of the joint Asia Pacific Clean Energy Summit, Islands and Isolated Communities Congress and International OTEC Symposium in Honolulu, Hawaii. A list of technology qualifiers will present new energy technologies to a high-level panel of Department of Defense, Department of Energy and Department of Agriculture officials (surprisingly, the USDA manages a number of large-scale energy development programs).

The DETC has more than 90 finalists, each of which offer some smart energy technologies to the Pentagon. Some ideas are offered by companies such as Honeywell (HON) and Caterpillar (CAT). Others are offered by research universities such as Cornell, Southern Research Institute, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Illinois Institute of Technology, Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and Nanyang Technological University. However, most ideas seem to originate from private companies and small startups.

While the winners are yet to be determined, some of this year's finalists offer incredible technologies. Real Money subscribers may recall a recent article that described emerging opportunities in microgrid technologies. When it comes to microgrids, American ingenuity is way ahead of typical utility thinking. And as was described in the article, the military is leading the way.

One trend that keeps popping up is direct current, commonly known as DC. DC is ubiquitous. For example, solar panels produce only DC power. LED lamps work best with DC. Many electronic circuits require DC power. If a microgrid has solar panels and DC loads attached, it might make sense to create a DC backbone.

Under the standard grid approach, when power is produced from DC sources, it must be converted to AC. The AC-power is then delivered to equipment where it is converted back to DC. This chain of events causes unnecessary steps and significant energy losses.

Some DETC finalists designed microgrid systems that rely on DC power. By avoiding AC, the military saves energy and unnecessary equipment.

It gets better. To prevent enemies from hacking into the military's microgrids, other DETC finalists are offering state-of-the-art cybersecurity technologies. These technologies will quickly migrate into the private sector as microgrids become a critical part of the nation's infrastructure.

A private company called Widetronix has built a nuclear power plant that operates on a tiny semiconductor chip. These solid-state batteries, called betavoltaics, harness the energy of decaying radioactive material embedded on a proprietary semiconductor chip. Power generated from these devices lasts from days to decades, and it is unaffected by environmental factors. Since these chips emit only beta particles (electrons), they do not present any nuclear safety concerns.

Widetronix was spun off from Cornell University's Spencer Research Group, and it has been working with the Army Research Laboratory. They formed financial and technical partnerships with Department of Defense's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR), Missile Defense Agency, Energy Materials Center Cornell (EMC2), Lockheed Martin (LMT), II-VI Incorporated (IIVI), Cornell NanoScale Facility, Plasma-Therm, Cree (CREE) and others.

Investing in these technologies via private companies is difficult. But Honeywell and Cree offer investors interesting and unexpected paths to reach emerging energy technologies. Both companies have a foot in the military's energy market, and both companies have other lines of business.

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