Military awards Yale $2.4 million project

The United States Department of Defense is spending billions of dollars on developing weapons of the future, and this week it enlisted the help of Yale scientists.

The faculty of engineering announced Monday that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency awarded it $2.4 million for a project that will help create micro-combustion batteries for military use.

The U.S. military envisions its soldier of the future, with the help of micro-combustion, to have the ability to power and control laser guided missiles and to keep in wireless contact with his or her home base from anywhere on the ground. In order to achieve this, the military needs batteries that will continue to provide power to ground soldiers for several days at a time and still be lightweight enough to carry around.

Conventional batteries are not meeting the needs of the military because they are too bulky and die quickly, but micro-combustion powered batteries will be dramatically more efficient, said Alessandro Gomez, the director of the Yale Center for Combustion Studies.

To make batteries more powerful and practical for the military, Gomez will head a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency-sponsored “Palm Power” project that will focus on making portable batteries powered by micro-combustion.

“Traditional batteries take up a lot of space but produce relatively little energy,” said Gomez, who is the principal investigator of the new project. “Micro-combustion batteries are a much better alternative because they are lightweight and produce a great deal more energy.”

Gomez, together with teams of scientists in Yale’s mechanical, chemical and electrical engineering departments, will put the $2.4 million grant to use over three years with the possibility of receiving more money after that time has elapsed.

In three years, the teams hope to build a prototype combustor capable of producing 20 watts of continuous power for up to 100 hours. At the same time, a company in North Haven called Precision Combustion Inc., which signed a $300,000 subcontract with the Yale teams, will work on catalytic aspects of the combustor.

Micro-combustors perform two important processes: First, they convert chemical energy to thermal energy, and second, they convert that thermal energy to electrical energy. To do this they run on liquid hydrocarbon and carbon monoxide fuels. The process sounds simple, but working with small volumes creates problems such as incomplete conversion of the fuels and difficulty in managing temperatures.

“To achieve combustion in a space this compact is a huge accomplishment,” said Marshall Long, a co-investigator on the project and professor of mechanical engineering. “But the fact that we have so many people with complementary areas of expertise working on this project means that we can make this a reality.”

Beginning this summer, the teams plan to work on different aspects of achieving chemical to thermal energy conversion. Gomez’s team will be in charge of the design and testing of the micro-combustor system, Long’s team will work on the development and application of laser-diagnostic techniques for the micro-combustor system, and other teams will work on heat-transfer optimization and use of catalysts in the combustion system, Gomez said.

While Gomez’s teams at Yale work on converting chemical energy to thermal energy, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency will enlist the help of teams elsewhere to work on the thermal energy to electrical energy conversion process.

“This is the first micro-combustion grant we’ve received, and it represents a shift to smaller scales of research,” Long said. “But it involves the same fundamentals present in larger combustion projects so we can do it. We’ll face some major challenges, but I feel we’ll be able to meet our end goal of replacing traditional batteries.”

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