14 May 2013 — Think of a silent electric engine that can sneak into enemy territory. It uses fuel cell technology. Portable fuel cells also power US soldiers’ power goggles, GPS, radios and laptops. And the  US’s Great Green Fleet runs on 50 per cent petroleum and a 50 per cent mix of waste food, oil and algae biofuel.  And Australia is playing role through the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology. It’s all about how a sustainable defence force can save the planet,  reports Leon Gettler.

You would hardly call the US Department of Defense a green machine. It is the biggest oil consuming government body in the world, providing petrol for hundreds of thousands of vehicles, ships, planes, tanks and submarines. It also has the biggest carbon footprint of any US government agency, emitting 52.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide out of a total of 121.3 million metric tons.

According to the Centre for Research on Globalisation, the Pentagon is creating climate havoc, pointing out that the Pentagon has an exemption from greenhouse gas emissions limits.

And, it says, the results are clear.

“Besides emitting carbon dioxide, US military operations release other highly toxic and radioactive materials into the air, water and soil. US weapons made with depleted uranium have spread tens of thousands of pounds of microparticles of radioactive and highly toxic waste throughout the Middle East, Central Asia and the Balkans… The US war in Vietnam left large areas so contaminated with the Agent Orange herbicide that today, more than 35 years later, dioxin contamination is 300 to 400 times higher than “safe” levels. Severe birth defects and high rates of cancer resulting from environmental contamination are continuing into a third generation. The 1991 US war in Iraq – followed by 13 years of starvation sanctions, the 2003 US invasion and continuing occupation – has transformed the region, which has a 5,000-year history as a Middle East breadbasket, into an environmental catastrophe. Iraq’s arable and fertile land has become a desert wasteland where the slightest wind whips up a dust storm.”

However, there are signs the US military is changing. The reason why? The era of cheap oil is over.

Indeed, there’s been a clear change in strategy for the US military. According to a report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the big risks facing the US Department of Defense include transporting liquid fuels to and on the battlefield; growing oil price volatility; the impact of fuel dependence on operational effectiveness; the fragility of energy supplies for forces that must have assured power 24 hours a day; and energy laws. It means one thing: US military forces have to go green. The cost of oil is driving the change, it says.

“Until recently, the US military’s innovation agenda has not placed a high premium on energy efficiency and new sources of energy and fuels. Because of plentiful, inexpensive supplies of petroleum products and electricity, highest priority has been given, until late, to building weapons platforms that are bigger, faster and more powerful. But energy is no longer an inconsequential expense, the nature of conflict has changed and the US military is responding.”

As a result, it says that US military spending to harness clean energy technologies in the air, at sea and on the ground is projected to increase to $2.25 billion annually by 2015. It says that that the Department of Defense has issued requests for information from electric vehicle manufacturers, battery manufacturers, suppliers, and financing corporations. It wants to know more about equipment costs, availability of technologies, financing options and other proposals that would allow it to deploy electric vehicles that are cost competitive with internal combustion engine vehicles.

“With more than 190,000 non-tactical vehicles, the deployment of medium- and heavy-duty electric vehicles in military fleets could be significant in just a few years, assuming that procurement can be achieved at competitive prices,” says the report.

The US Department of Defense now also sees climate change emerging as a national security threat.

“The area of climate change has a dramatic impact on national security,” US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says. “Rising sea levels, severe droughts, the melting of the polar caps, the more frequent and devastating natural disasters all raise demand for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.”

The US Government has received recommendations to invest in energy-efficient technologies, which would reduce the Pentagon’s energy consumption by 55 to 60 per cent and improve indoor air quality to increase worker productivity and reduce absenteeism, not to mention medical and liability costs. There are recommendations for the Pentagon to install water-efficient sinks, toilets, water fountains, and showers. The aim is to reduce the Pentagon’s water consumption – currently 125 million gallons a year – by as much as 25 per cent, saving more than 31 million gallons a year. There is also a call to make recycling easier by putting in additional collection bins and relocating collection stations, allowing the Pentagon to double its current recycling rate from 25 per cent to 50 per cent.

And there are signs the US military is responding.

For example, to reduce the amount of fuel required to support soldiers while in the field, the US Army is introducing solar-powered tents. Using a fast-evolving technology known as flexible photovoltaics, these tents convert light energy into electricity for night vision goggles and computers, thus removing the need to haul generators and large amounts of fuel. The US Army has already used these tents in Afghanistan.

“Now think of a tank with a silent electric engine. It could potentially sneak into enemy territory relatively unheard. Great for wiping out opposing forces while saving the planet.”

The US Navy is also experimenting with biofuels. Unveiled in 2012, the Great Green Fleet is a carrier strike group comprising an aircraft carrier, two guided-missile destroyers, a guided-missile cruiser and an oiler. All these vessels use a fuel blend made up of 50 per cent petroleum and a 50 per cent mix of waste food, oil and algae biofuel.

The navy has to move fast. Every time a barrel of oil goes up a dollar, it costs the navy millions of dollars. The price instability and high demand for fossil fuels is constraining the biggest and most powerful navy in the world.

And Australia is playing role here. The United States Navy’s director for operational energy has visited the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology for discussions on The University of Queensland’s world-leading biofuels research. And Australian research company Agritechnology is reported to be developing a biofuel that could be used to power the US Navy fleet.

Also, the US military has introduced portable fuel cells. These would be a godsend for the average US soldier who has to carry a large number of batteries while on a four-day mission. These batteries power goggles, GPS, radios and laptops. But there’s a problem: each of these devices requires its own unique batteries. That means you can’t put on your night vision goggles using radio batteries and so on. Now, today’s soldiers have to carry more and more high-tech equipment. That means they have to carry a lot of batteries required to power all this equipment. It constitutes an impractical percentage of total weight. The US military plans to change that by using a central portable fuel cell. That would allow soldiers to plug all their gadgets into one device. And it reduces the amount of weight they have to carry around.

The armed forces are also looking at fuel cell technology for tanks. The first vehicle to receive this technology will be the workhorse M1 Abrams battle tank, which requires vast amounts of onboard computing power for sensors, computing equipment, battle command technology and other electronic equipment. Fuel cell technology would be able to provide greater electrical power. It also creates a silent tank. This is actually quite useful given that enemy combatants can hear the current model’s 1000+ horsepower multi fuel turbine engine from miles away. Now think of a tank with a silent electric engine. It could potentially sneak into enemy territory relatively unheard. Great for wiping out opposing forces while saving the planet.

A few years ago, scientists created a portable refinery that turns the US military’s trash into electricity. This would allow soldiers in the field to convert waste into power. The tactical biorefinery first separates organic food material from residual trash, such as paper, plastic, styrofoam and cardboard. The food waste goes to a bioreactor where industrial yeast ferments it into ethanol. Residual materials go to a gasifier where they are heated under low-oxygen conditions and eventually become low-grade propane gas and methane. The gas and ethanol are then combusted in a modified diesel engine that powers a generator to produce electricity.

The US military has now started using deployable renewable power stations, perfect for soldiers stationed in remote combat outposts where it is difficult to get fuel resupplied. The US military has just awarded a contract to SkyBuilt Power to provide rapidly deployable renewable energy power stations for Afghanistan. The systems can use any kind of renewable energy source, whether it be solar, wind or biomass. They combine wind turbines, solar panels, biomass and biofuels with batteries to store and draw electricity from. They also come with smaller modules suited to powering communications equipment and treating water. They are designed to reduce fuel and maintenance in any climate worldwide.

The interesting part is how many of these innovations will flow into the general market. Military inventions that have flown into civilian life include GPS, freeze drying, duct tape, jeeps, computers, microwaves and jerrycans. The internet itself originated out of the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (or Arpanet) program back in 1969, which created packet switching and email applications.

If any of the latest green innovations from the US military become part of our everyday, it’s just a continuation of that tradition.