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The US military’s efforts to reduce dependence on fossil fuels may help to advance emerging energy technologies by providing them with coveted assets, such as financial backing and testing opportunities. But there is no guarantee that these technologies, as applied to military-specific conditions, will be commercial successes in a civilian context.

The Department of Defense holds an annual contest, the Defense Energy Technology Challenge, for innovations in energy that can offer lower energy costs, reduced reliance on foreign sources of energy, and overall enhance safety for US troops. Each year’s winners, selected by representatives from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Army Corps of Engineers, US Department of Agriculture and Department of Energy, are then matched with testing and procurement opportunities.

“Winning the Defense Energy Technology Challenge puts Allylix directly in front of potential commercial partners for funding the next phase of the development of these terpene-based fuel products,” Seth Goldblum, vice-president of business development of Allylix, one of this year’s winners, told Breaking Energy (see full list of winners below).  

The winners – selected from submissions, rather than sector surveys – are technologies such as new transportation fuels, micro grids and grid security tools with any of a number of desirable characteristics, such as being portable, deployable or efficient. They can be at any stage from prototype through to early commercialization, but mature enough to transition to commercialization, and not yet used by any division of the US military.

In looking at many of the winning technologies, it is easy to see how breakthroughs in the military sphere could carry over into civilian applications, offering potential benefits ranging from diversification of viable liquid transportation fuels to a reduction in energy and space requirements for businesses. And the case is often made for financial backing from the military as a way to make it through the “valley of death” – the financing gap between the research and development and commercialization stages.

“If viewed as a single consumer, the Department of Defense is the single biggest consumer of energy on the planet,” noted Elias Hinckey, energy and tax partner with law firm Sullivan and Worcester . “It consumes approximately 1% of all U.S. energy, so as a buyer it can single-handedly help commercialization of a new technology. It’s just that big.”

“By providing a market, the DoD supports technical advancement and scale, both of which will lower the cost of the new system – ideally enough to make the new technology economically viable in other markets,” said Hinckley.

Using these technologies for military applications can improve their efficiency, result in more rugged designs, and “scale technology and create demand that you wouldn’t get otherwise”, said Sarah Ladislaw, Co-Director of the Energy and National Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But the transition from military application to widespread commercialization is not necessarily straightforward. Hinckley pointed out that there can be a wide gap between military and civilian energy cost assumptions.

“The Defense Department has a different set of criteria when choosing technologies,” Hinckley said. “A good example would be a combined system of solar power generation plus battery back-up. Here in the States, the economic equation doesn’t support adoption of the new system, delivered power costs 8-15 cents/kWh and the storable solar system might have an equivalent price per kWh of 20 cents or more.”

“In the field, it’s solar plus storage versus mobile diesel generation, which costs at least 45 cents/kwh, and can be a multiple of that in high-risk environments where transport of diesel is difficult,” Hinckley said. “So what was not an economic case for a deploying a technology in a typical US setting is commercially advantageous in a theater of operations setting.”

And these programs have focused some negative attention on what some see as ineffective military spending. “Some of the pilot projects propose or envisioned for DoD haven’t panned out,” said Ladislaw.

“Some have been successful, like the deployability of solar panels,” she said. But “where that’s gotten a lot of recognizable scrutiny has been on the biofuels side – whether or not the military should be using this as a point of leverage to create a market for algae-based biofuels, when economists say that that market is not big enough to move the needle on the oil side.”

That scrutiny has prompted the DoD to repackage the stated purpose of its energy efforts.

“The Defense Department, after receiving a great deal criticism on these programs, has been careful to alter its message away from reducing emissions, cost-savings, etc and speak solely about mission support and saving lives,” said Ladislaw.

The 2013 Defense Energy Technology Challenge winners are as follows:

Allylix: Renewable terpene aviation fuels; fuel additives for tactical weapons such as unmanned aerial vehicles and missiles

Asetek, Incliquid cooling technology that captures up to 95% of the heat, cools it without compressive chilling or evaporative cooling, allowing for smaller, more efficient military data centers.

Honeywell InternationalSecure Network of Assured Power Enclaves (SNAPE), which are microgrids that are cyber-secure, smart and self-healing

Ibis Networks: A cloud-based system with military-grade security – Intelisocket – which allows for monitoring and remote-control of socket level devices.

INI Power Systems: “Omnivorous” flex-fuel generator can run on all compressed and liquid fuels, including light and heavy distillates

INTREPID Robotics.: Explosion-proof robots that can find and fix leaks in petrochemical and potable above-ground storage tanks

Modula S: Modular, grid-independent building construction system that employs renewable energy

Primus Power: The EnergyPod storage system, which is distributed, utility-scale and containerized

REbound Technology: Refrigeration system using embedded energy storage to maintain reliable cooling loads fueled by intermittent diesel or solar

SEaB Energy Limited: The MuckBuster, a small-scale, transportable system that turns organic waste into energy

Sheetak: A thermolectric thin film that offers a more efficient means of heating or cooling of air, water etc.

Southern Research Institute: Micro-scale waste-to-energy system that can generate renewable energy from agricultural and municipal solid waste, and will also include a microrefinery to produce renewable liquid fuels

TM3 Systems Incorporated: A 60kW modular mobile microgrid with automatic load and generator management that uses three generators and 5 kW of solar

Transformative Wave Technologies: Rooftop HVAC retrofit technology, called Catalyst, that uses sensors to control indoor fans, heating and cooling, as well as fault detection and demand reduction capability

Zerobase: Remote, off-grid power systems that incorporate renewable and hybrid distributed power generation to reduce dependence on fossil fuels