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U.S. Army Examines Smaller, Flex-fuel Generators

Aug. 20, 2012 - 05:10PM   |  
By ADAM STONE   |   Comments
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The U.S. Army is testing new power packs that could run on virtually any fuel, including gasoline, ethanol and diesel.

Developed by INI Power of Morrisville, N.C., the alternative energy power packs could even run on such nonconventional fuels as grain alcohol and paint thinner, anything that’s 151-proof or stronger.

“Anything that’s flammable is fair game,” said INI Power founder Larry Markoski.

The Army has an interest in such technologies, and is testing INI’s device along with similar solutions through its Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC).

The U.S. military mandates that all systems operate on a common fuel, known as JP8. Small power systems have trouble burning such fuel, and the military has been looking for alternative fuels to power small generators that today run on diesel, said Shailesh Shah, CERDEC Fuel Cell Technology Team lead.

Fuel problems with the small generators have resulted in some logistical issues. “We’ve come to realize that for the portable power systems, soldiers are often acquiring fuel from other sources other than the Army’s logistics tail,” Shah said.

Besides burning a range of fuels, INI’s device also offers added portability. The Defense Department’s smallest diesel generator weighs 176 pounds, compared to INI’s 32-pound device, Markoski said.

Most often, generators of this type would be used to charge batteries in the field, thus helping soldiers keep lines of communication open when radio devices begin to wind down. In hostile conditions where access to fuel may be uncertain, a flex-fuel generator could offer a significant operational advantage.

CEDREC has been experimenting with flex-fuel generators for the past three years, working with industry partners and developing technologies internally, said Michael Zalewski, the mechanical engineer leading the tests.

Researchers are looking at various aspects beyond the ability to burn multiple fuels. Considering the military environment, they also must consider durability, as well as whether the equipment can operate in extreme climate conditions.

Still, rubbing alcohol is no substitute for diesel. In particular, it won’t burn as long.

“It doesn’t limit what you can do, but it limits what your run time is per gallon,” Markoski said.

And the ability to burn grain alcohol is not meant as a replacement for conventional fuel.

“This is insurance. How do I ensure my communications? What happens when my logistics are not there? Then I have to go to plan B, and plan B is anything I can find that will burn,” Markoski said.

In the future, INI would like to compress the technology down even further.

“We’d like to have something you can throw in a backpack,” he said.

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