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Simulating the Solar Soldier: Brunel experts maximise the effect of new army power packs

Academics in Brunel’s School of Engineering and Design are helping to integrate a new dual solar and thermoelectric power pack into the battle dress of British infantry soldiers.

A prototype of the new ‘solar soldier’ pack is being developed by a consortium of six British universities, led by the University of Glasgow. Brunel’s Dr Emmanuel Tsekleves, an expert in 3D technology, human-computer interaction and human-centred design, is leading research on how best to integrate the technology into the whole set up of a soldier’s kit, to maximise efficiency and minimise obstruction to the wearer.

The new environmentally-friendly batteries produce power throughout the day and night, using an innovative combination of solar photovoltaic (PV) cells and thermoelectric devices, which generate energy through the difference in temperature between the outside and inside of a soldier’s clothes. They also employ cutting-edge storage technology to ensure a continuous energy supply. The project’s eventual objective is to create incredibly thin nanostructured PV and thermoelectric films on a flexible surface, which could be woven into the fabric of soldiers’ battle uniforms.

The very small scale of the prototype, however, has led Dr Tsekleves and PhD student Ioannis Paraskevopoulos to develop a complex simulation environment based on conditions in various locations around the world, to model the future functionality of the power packs.

“The prototype is on such a small scale that you can’t actually place it to see how it will work best,” Dr Tsekleves explained. “We’ve built a 3D simulation environment by extending existing 3D authoring tools, so we can model different scenarios, different weather conditions, specified dates to show the differing intensity of the sun, and different kinds of mission which would require different ranges of motion. We can then pinpoint exactly how much light hits different parts of the body, enabling us to work out where best to place the technology. The results of the simulation have been validated against actual data from the environments modelled, with very encouraging results.”

The conclusions drawn from simulated scenarios can then be considered in the light of practical considerations. “One of the best positions for a solar cell would be the top of the helmet,” said Dr Tsekleves, “but in 40°C heat in Iraq soldiers will seek shade when they can, so the power pack would be less effective. Instead the top of the backpack could be better – when they take their backpacks off to rest they could leave them in the sun to continue charging”.

The new power packs have a number of advantages over conventional chemical battery packs: they will be up to 50% lighter, improving soldiers’ mobility; they will increase the scope of infantry missions by eliminating the necessity of returning to base to recharge; and even more significantly, they absorb the heat as it is lost from soldiers’ bodies overnight, making troops less detectable to night vision equipment.  The 24/7 generation of power also makes the technology applicable to a wide range of applications, such as mobile phones, cars, satellites, and as an emergency power supply in disaster zones to transport medicines, supplies and fresh food.

Dr Tsekleves’ involvement in the collaboration came about through an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) ‘sandpit’ event focussing on ‘reducing the burden on the dismounted soldier’. Sandpits bring together relevant academics and industry experts from a variety of fields, who are given five days to generate ideas and brainstorm in a multidisciplinary environment. The ‘Solar Soldier’ project team includes specialists from a wide range of disciplines including chemistry, materials science, process engineering, electrical engineering and design.

The two-year project, scheduled to finish in December 2011, received £650,000 of funding from EPSRC and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), the research arm of the Ministry of Defence. The consortium hopes to gain further funding to continue this work.