Wireless Systems Design

Photovoltaics Take The Weight Off Soldiers

In the consumer world, smaller and lighter handheld devices are considered flashy and desirable. In the defense arena, however, it is critical rather than fashionable for a device to be small and low in weight. After all, soldiers must carry this equipment along with their normal gear on their backs. Any added weight is simply unacceptable. This problem doesn't end with the device, however. There also is the question of keeping the device charged.

To tackle this problem, the U. S. Army has enlisted the help of Konarka Technologies, Inc. (www.konarkatech.com). By funding Konarka to develop its photovoltaic technology, the U.S. Army hopes to spur the development of a lightweight, flexible, scalable, and renewable power source. This power source can then be used in a variety of military-application form factors.

The Army desperately needs ultra-lightweight renewable power for all of the equipment and electronics that are now used by soldiers. A soldier often carries a variety of portable battery-powered devices, such as displays, computer systems, and communications devices. These devices require disposable or rechargeable batteries. But disposable batteries, when discarded, can leave a trail to a soldier's whereabouts. The use of rechargeable batteries also is problematic. Their backup power supplies are both heavy and burdensome.

The Army's hope for a solution to these challenges currently rests on Konarka's ability to create a source of lightweight, renewable power. The company leverages both nanotechnology and conducting polymers in the development of its technology solutions. Its technology converts both sunlight and indoor artificial light into direct-current electrical power. By using proprietary, low-temperature production methods, Konarka puts the photovoltaic cells onto flexible, lightweight plastics.

The history of this company actually harks back to an initial project between the Natick Soldier Center (www.natick.army.mil/soldier/index. htm) and the University of Mass. at Lowell. The project led to a chemical process known as "cold sintering," which resulted in the formation of Konarka. The cold-sintering technology facilitates materials processing at relatively low temperatures. As a result, Konarka is able to create photovoltaic cells without exposing the materials to destructive high temperatures in the manufacturing process. It can then develop flexible cells on lightweight, flexible materials, as opposed to the more commonly used glass or silicon.

Under the current development program, Konarka Technologies will supply prototypes of modules. It will then demonstrate their ability to charge batteries and operate military equipment. Hopefully, the end results will lighten the load for today's soldiers.

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