A few months ago, SOFREP reported on an important discovery made by scientists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory that involved combining water with a newly engineered nano-powder based on aluminum.  When water came into contact with the aluminum powder, it instantly released hydrogen that could be used as a fuel source to power electronics: something of the utmost importance to a warfighter that needs to keep communications and GPS location equipment up and running while in austere environments.

What we do as Army scientists is develop materials and technology that will directly benefit the Soldier and enhance their capabilities,” said Dr. Kristopher Darling, an ARL researcher. “We developed a new processing technique to synthesize a material, which spontaneously splits water into hydrogen.”

The Army has continued to experiment with their new wonder-powder since then; first, by powering a remote-controlled tank they could drive around the office with it, and now, by testing different types of liquids a warfighter might have available to them in order to produce an electrical charge from the powder, which offers a number of promising applications, including drones powered by the very materials they’re made of, and emergency charging solutions for the battlefield.

“We have calculated that one kilogram of aluminum powder can produce 220 kilowatts of energy in just three minutes,” said Dr. Anit Giri, also an ARL researcher.

While using water has already proven an effective method of releasing the hydrogen energy from the powder, scientists and researchers are aware that, despite our growing reliance on electronics in a warzone, the human body’s dependency on clean drinking water remains a higher priority.  Revolutionary as this new aluminum powder may be, soldiers could still be left having to make the horrific choice between drinking their remaining water stores, or using that H2O to charge the equipment they rely on for survival.

“Our basic focus is materials development and optimization,” Darling said. “We’re looking at how we can optimize the composition, its interactions with other fluids, including saliva and other liquids available to Soldiers in a field environment.”

The Army scientists tried to recreate the process using a specific liquid that all soldiers tend to discard privately, they found that it resulted in a massive increase in the rate of reaction in the powder.  What was that miracle fluid that worked nearly twice as well as water in producing power from powder?  Pee.

Human urine is about 96 percent water and four percent waste products, but there are more than 3,000 compounds that are found in the fluid.  (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by David McNally, ARL Public Affairs)

When we demonstrated it with urine, we saw almost a factor of twofold increase in the reaction rates,” Darling said. “We were very excited. As a group we have been pushing for the last few months on developing the efficiency and the reaction kinetics to try to get them faster.”

The results were so unexpected, that the team at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory have yet to pin down exactly what caused the large increase in reaction rates, but it’s currently assumed that it involves the electrolytes and the acidity of the waste.  For soldiers, this means using urine to produce an emergency charge not only works just as well as their last water rations, it actually works significantly better.

Of course, actual applications for this technology are still a long way away, as the discovery was made only recently and has yet to be fully fleshed out, but the possibilities for this aluminum powder based energy production method are nearly limitless, as human beings grow more and more dependent on electronic gadgets not just in warzones, but in countless risky environments, like space exploration or undersea enterprises.

It was a spontaneous finding,” Darling said. “We weren’t expecting to develop this material specifically for hydrogen production. It was a group effort. We came together as a team to understand the importance of the discovery. This has great potential for benefiting Soldiers.”


Image courtesy of the U.S. Army