AU develops battery technology for Army, NASA

Published: Aug 24, 2006 1:00:00 AM
Media Contact: Amy Weaver,

Source: Opelika-Auburn News

It looks like a tackle box, but weighs nearly 50 pounds. However, it's what's inside that matters most to Auburn University, the U.S. Army and NASA.

After 18 months, researchers at Auburn's Space Research Institute, with their partner, Radiance Technologies Inc., unveiled a new technology Wednesday that will provide the Army with a portable and reliable method of recharging AA batteries. The development will also help AU test a 5-kilowatt engine NASA would use for a lunar module.

The Army's Research Office and Central Electronics Command funded the $750,000 project to find a source of silent electrical power. While AA batteries are thrown out, other batteries are restored by connecting a charger to a running Humvee.

"Our goal was to be stealth but still be able to (use the technology to) communicate," said Mary Henrixon, project manager at Central Electronic Command.

The new technology isn't completely silent, but tremendously quieter than a Humvee's engine, said SRI Director Henry Brandhorst. But it creates portable energy to recharge AA batteries, a capability the Army does not have.

Henrixon said each soldier uses 88 AA batteries each day. A platoon on a five-day mission would dispose of about 650.

This new technology would reduce the amount of batteries soldiers use and carry, she said. The technology isn't meant to be mass produced for the entire Army, but used by specialized units only.

Eventually, it could be mass produced by a company at a low enough cost general consumers could afford, said SRI Research Fellow Ray Kirby.

The prototype has proved itself in more than 500 hours of laboratory testing and is capable of generating enough electrical power to charge six AA batteries every 15 minutes.

"This means that more than 150 AA batteries can be charged for each pound of propane fuel used," said Brandhorst. "We believe that this technology has the potential to greatly increase the efficiency of supplying American soldiers in the field with battery power."

Brandhorst said the project, which is far from over, will hopefully bring notoriety to Auburn, along with more research dollars, as well as attract students.

"What we want to do is to generate system engineers," he said of the growing field.

The next phase of the project has already begun, and is set to serve as a teaching tool. The Army wants the technology to be lighter, diesel-powered and a 160-watt system. The prototype uses propane. It will take several months for another model to be created and then it will undergo "torture tests" by the military, Brandhorst added.

"We know it works. The next step is now can you make it better," Brandhorst said.

Auburn is one of a few universities across the country working with Stirling technology. The prototype uses two free-piston Stirling engines, which eliminate vibration and noise.

"It uses heat from an external source and converts this heat to electrical power," said Brandhorst. "It has only two moving parts and because the external heat can come from a multitude of sources, this technology is a reliable basis for military and other defense-related applications."

The lessons learned from this project will help Auburn prepare for a $2.7 million deal with NASA. Kirby hopes the university will be able to begin testing a 5-kilowatt engine by next December. Brandhorst said NASA is interested in an engine for possible space power applications.