News | April 20, 2016

Power to the Warfighters

By Chris Erbe

Just as civilians have learned to rely on batteries to power multiple devices, so too has the warfighter — and then some. Over the last 15 years, the military has added more and more energy-consuming gear to the soldier’s load, including radios, GPS, computers, smartphones, night-vision goggles, infrared sights and counter-IED equipment.

The ability of these devices to improve mission effectiveness and survivability is significant, but the downside is that the warfighter has to carry added weight, especially from batteries. In response, DoD research and development has focused on ways to provide more power while reducing the load. DoD researchers are engineering batteries that are lighter, smaller, longer-lasting and more powerful.

While it is the researcher’s job to provide a solution to a problem, it is the manufacturer’s job to produce enough of the resulting product to support DoD’s mission. It is at this point that the Defense Logistics Agency Battery R&D Network Program steps in to encourage technology implementation projects, striving to lower costs, enhance manufacturing and advance technology for DLA’s battery supply chain.

“We work closely with outside industries,” said Matt Hutchens, industrial engineer at DLA Logistics Operations and head of DLA’s BATTNET program. “For a good portion of our R&D, we collaborate with suppliers, and they propose a specific manufacturing plan that will achieve the objectives we’re looking for.”

The BATTNET Program recently supported a project to ramp up manufacture of an improved lithium carbon monofluoride battery that powers radios and other small electronics used by soldiers in the field.

Two civilian technology companies, Ultralife Inc. and EaglePicher Technologies, partnering with the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, developed a smaller, lighter military battery that offered a lot of advantages. The improved battery delivered a 110-percent increase in energy capacity; a 31- to 50-percent decrease in weight (depending on battery size); and an increased shelf life from 5 to 15 years. Once the research team validated the chemistry and tested the samples, the focus shifted to manufacturing.

“Our task was to find a way to move from producing a few prototypes to producing hundreds of units in a fully functioning manufacturing line,” Hutchens said.

DLA encouraged the two technology companies to scale up production by assisting with funding for the cost of engineering, materials and testing.

The Army recently finished successful testing of several hundred batteries in various sizes at the Aberdeen Proving Ground and is ordering larger quantities for troops in the field.

“This project made a quick, positive impact by providing a battery with higher energy capabilities for the warfighter,” Hutchens said. “BATTNET’s role was to develop manufacturing capability, and now it has transitioned to bringing the resulting product into the logistics chain.”

For establishing production of the lithium carbon monofluoride battery and making it available to the military, Hutchens and the other DoD R&D team members and partners were awarded the Defense Manufacturing Technology Achievement Award in 2014.

DLA’s BATTNET program also looks for ways to promote better manufacturing processes to the battery industry in order to drive down overall costs. One recent project developed a new procedure in the manufacture of battery electrodes.

Most electrode manufacturers use a wet process that involves taking a roll of aluminum through a slurry coat of hazardous materials and solvents before sending it through a dryer. The air used for drying is so toxic that it has to be captured and removed safely from circulation. The process is expensive, and the capital investment needed to set up and maintain such an operation is a barrier to many small businesses.

Through a DLA broad agency announcement, Hutchens became aware of Eskra Technical Products, a small company that developed a dry, electrostatic process to coat electrodes. The dry method eliminated the need for hazardous solvents and a lot of the equipment costs associated with the wet-coating process. Using the dry coating method, new capitalization costs can drop by 50 percent and production costs decrease by 30 percent.

“The process was much more flexible in that you could switch out materials without having to totally clean the equipment like you would with a wet process,” Hutchens added. “It even provided quality improvements — the coating is very uniform.”

With DLA’s encouragement and technical assistance, Eskra Technical Products has been working with B&W Megtec, a maker of battery manufacturing equipment, to design low-cost dry-coating production machines. Hutchens expects the dry-coating process to open the door for smaller-scale manufacturers to produce electrodes effectively at much lower cost.

“This project attempts to go deep into the production process to make an innovative cost reduction that, long term, we hope will have an impact on battery costs,” said Hutchens. “As this capability gets integrated into the battery suppliers, we expect the competitive market to influence prices.”

In another initiative, the DLA BATTNET Program teamed with the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command in September 2015 to design and manufacture a replacement battery used for the missile guidance system of the TOW2 anti-tank missile. AMCOM’s goal was to replace a two-piece nickel-cadmium battery and charger system with a lithium-ion battery that has its own integrated charging capability.

Besides having a detached charging system, the NiCad battery’s problems include poor performance, high maintenance costs and a disappearing supply chain. The charging unit was so obsolete it was no longer being manufactured.

AMCOM is now designing, developing, and testing a replacement lithium-ion battery, and DLA BATTNET will be providing a technical data package to transition the battery to manufacturing.

“The new battery will reduce the system weight, get more firings, reduce logistics and life cycle costs — and we’ll be resolving the supply chain problem,” Hutchens said.

DLA is also partnering with the Naval Air Systems Command to increase the manufacturing readiness of a lithium-ion battery used in the MH-60 helicopter. Like the battery for the TOW missile guidance system, the NiCad battery currently being used for the aircraft suffers from performance issues and growing maintenance costs.

NAVAIR has tested prototypes of a replacement lithium-ion battery with a company called Quallion. In December 2015, the DLA BATTNET Program stepped in to develop a manufacturing plan.

“In about a year, NAVAIR wants to buy about 100 batteries and run them through a complete flight-test qualification,” Hutchens said. “The current design needs to be reduced in complexity and there needs to be some risk reduction testing as it relates to the manufacturing. Our goal is to have the best battery at the lowest cost come out of our contract.”

What’s the next battery innovation? Lithium-ion technology has come a long way, but there is still a lot of room for improvement, Hutchens said. Emerging technology in the lithium family of batteries has to do with testing different types of anodes, as well as improving cathode materials and electrolytes. Companies like Panasonic are experimenting with batteries with silicon-based anodes, and there are more exotic solutions on the horizon, such as battery power built into warfighters’ clothing.

But what good are innovations if there is no reasonable access? As DoD and industry researchers push the envelope to keep up with warfighters’ demand to make batteries lighter, longer lasting and with higher energy, DLA’s BATTNET Program works with producers to bridge the gap from development to full-scale production.

As long as there is a need, DoD will continue to find innovative ways to improve battery technology through its many R&D programs, activities and partnerships. At the same time, the DLA’s BATTNET Program will be finding innovative ways to bring those advantages to its most important customer.