Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Solar-powers Soldiers

By Stephen Luntz

Soldiers will soon be walking easier, with lightweight solar panels replacing heavy batteries on longer missions.

“Currently soldiers are dependent on electrical power provided by a conventional battery to power these devices,” says Dr Igor Skryabin of the Australian National University’s Centre for Sustainable Energy Systems. “While battery technology research has delivered considerable improvements, the goal of a small, lightweight power storage system, capable of sustaining all electronic equipment for the whole time a soldier is in the field, is not yet available.”

Three years ago the Centre began a trial using SLIVER cells, invented there and now mass produced in the United States, for multi-day missions (AS, Nov/Dec 2008, pp.20–22). The project has proven successful, and the Department of Defence has funded a new program to integrate solar cells into soldiers’ power systems.

“SLIVER cells have enabled the construction of efficient, rugged, flexible and lightweight portable modules that convert light directly into electricity under a wide range of environmental conditions,” says SLIVER’s developer, Prof Andrew Blakers. “These cells have the thickness of a sheet of paper or a human hair.”

Skryabin says the technology will be developed for civilian applications in parallel with the military, and it should be 2–3 years before backpackers can power laptops or recharge torches during long hikes. More substantial power requirements may be met by covering tents with SLIVER cells.

As a proportion of the world solar market, Skryabin says that military use will “remain a niche”, but with transport of batteries to Iraq having been one of the first priorities of the US military in 2003 the savings on future missions could prove substantial.