Super Friends

The weight of a soldierâ''s pack is about 15 to 20 percent batteries. That extra 27 pounds or so adds to a soldierâ''s fatigue. Worse, those batteriesâ'' (by definition) limited life means that a missionâ''s length depends completely on battery capacity. During this morningâ''s Strategic Technology Office (STO) presentation, program manager Douglas Kirkpatrick laid out STOâ''s plans for liberating soldiers from energy dependence. Among more traditional ideas like extending battery life, making batteries smaller and lighter and squeezing more life out of solar cells, Dr. Kirkpatrick proposed feedstock-flexible energy sources. Like Doc Brownâ''s Delorean in Back to the Future, a truck could run on rotten banana peels. If bananas are out of season, vegetable oil or algae can also do the trick. The goal is a flexible biofuels converter that adapts to its environmentâ''it eats what itâ''s given and doesnâ''t complain about its dinner. If the mission is in truly arid territory, Dr. Kirkpatrick envisions supplementing the converter with a portable algae farm.

This might be a good time for DARPA to pencil in a meeting with ARPA-E, the Advanced Research Projects Agency that is about to be created in the Department of Energy. This morning President Bush signed into law H.R. 2272, the America COMPETES Act. Among its many provisions, the bill authorizes the creation of ARPA-E, which will do for energy what DARPA has done for cutting-edge military technology.

One of the main criticisms of ARPA-E has been the lack of a market for products that will result from its innovations. Unlike DARPA, which has the Defense Department as its main customer, ARPA-E would rely on a diaphanous clientele to adopt its products.

But as this morningâ''s STO presentation clarifies, the energy problem is everyoneâ''s problem. A joint DARPA/ARPA-E effort would give ARPA-E its first guaranteed customer, and it might solve that program manager shortfall that DARPA seems to be struggling with.


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