Any time a group of military personnel set out on a mission, they have to be sure they’ve covered the basics in their loadout.  Water, food, first aid, and ammunition are perhaps the most prominent things that come to mind, as without any of those four items on the packing list, your chances of mission accomplishment, and indeed survival, begin to wither away.  One element often not thought of, but arguably of equal importance, however, is electricity.

Every piece of equipment a soldier utilizes in the field has to be powered by something.  Vehicles are often powered by internal combustion motors running on fossil fuels like gasoline or diesel, but all the rest of the electronics employed by America’s warfighters run on good old-fashioned batteries – batteries that eventually run out juice.  Without a means to recharge their portable power supplies, all the best equipment in the world quickly turns into nothing more than expensive paper weights – and the bane of the poor soldier tasked with lugging the dead equipment around.

Now though, Army scientists and engineers at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland may have found a way to recharge the lithium-ion batteries employed by America’s military in the field, and their discovery may have even further reaching implications.

While conducting what they call “routine material experimentation,” at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, a team of Army researchers stumbled across an interesting reaction: when they added water to a nano-galvanic aluminum-based powder, it began to bubble.

For most of us, that sounds just like the sort of thing one might expect out of a science experiment, but to the experts conducting it, they recognized this as something far more important.

“The hydrogen that is given off can be used as a fuel in a fuel cell,” said Scott Grendahl, a materials engineer and team leader. “What we discovered is a mechanism for a rapid and spontaneous hydrolysis of water.”

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Scientists have long been aware that adding a catalyst to increase chemical reaction rates to aluminum can result in hydrogen production, but the process usually requires heat, time, and the addition of either electricity or toxic chemicals like sodium hydroxide, potassium hydroxide or acid.  This nano-galvanic aluminum, however, needs no such assistance.

“In our case, it does not need a catalyst,” Dr. Anit Giri, a physicist with the lab’s Weapons and Materials Research Directorate said. “Also, it is very fast. For example, we have calculated that one kilogram of aluminum powder can produce 220 kilowatts of energy in just three minutes.”

This discovery could potentially have far-reaching ramifications for the future of electricity production.  Thus far, they’ve produced a small radio-controlled tank entirely powered by the aluminum powder and water combination that they use to zip around their laboratory as an example of what their discovery is capable of.

Army researcher Anthony J. Roberts powers a radio-controlled toy tank with hydrogen harvested from a unique chemical reaction.

“There are other researchers who have been searching their whole lives and their optimized product takes many hours to achieve, say 50 percent efficiency,” Grendahl said. “Ours does it to nearly 100 percent efficiency in less than three minutes.”

Immediately, Aberdeen’s team of researchers began considering applications for their discovery that could benefit soldiers on the battlefield.  In the short-term, their discovery could help recharge existing batteries in the field without having to return for a power source. “These teams are out for a short number of days, three to five days, and a lot of that depends not only on their food supplies, but on how long their supplies last in terms of their equipment and right now that stems from lithium batteries,” Grendahl said. “If we can recharge those batteries, they can stay out longer.”

In the long-term, the Army’s nano-galvanic aluminum-based powder could lead to 3D printed drones that run off of their own aluminum structure and self-destruct after they complete a mission, as well as a wide variety of other military and commercial applications.

The next step for their discovery is to begin documenting it in peer-reviewed scientific papers, so other laboratories can recreate their process and, hopefully, their results.

“We work here to help our Soldiers,” Giri said. “That is our sole aim. This material we have developed will do so.”

Images courtesy of the U.S. Army