Sustainable Energy and Environment

Emerging technologies will enable new means of energy production and help use energy more efficiently and effectively. But, at the same time, they contribute to the demand for more power and often come with negative secondary effects on the environment or energy requirements. Commercial and societal interests drive most research and development around energy and propulsion issues. Nevertheless, military capabilities will rely on these sources*.

For Defence, it is important to focus on alternative energy sources that enhance autonomy and do not (or hardly) affect environment and natural resources (e.g. greenhouse gas emission reduction, improving energy system sustainability,…). Regarding the operational aspect, “efficient self-sufficiency” means an operational autonomy with bigger dimensions and lasting longer, while reducing its logistical and environmental footprint. Although these operational aspects have priority, efforts in terms of energy transition and smart energy consumption for Defence as a civil user are justified as well, given the hectares of land, the number of buildings and routes on the military domains.

Sustainable energy and environment are closely linked in Research Area 09. An important aspect is the ongoing climate change, considered as a disruptive force, which can be partially addressed by the evolution towards sustainable energy solutions. This necessity is illustrated by the effects of climatic hazards on

  • The strategic environment, such as increased accessibility to shipping channels and competition for natural resources.
  • Coastal assets and installations due to rising sea levels and storm surges.
  • Military operations in various regions, as they become more expensive and more challenging.
  • Resilience and civil preparedness, due to increased shortages and control of food, lack of fresh water and reduced biodiversity.

Sustainable energy technologies mainly relate to the following areas. For each area, some examples are provided.

  • Batteries and energy storage
    • Optimising traditional lithium-ion battery technology. Other promising battery technologies include AI-air, dual-C, Li-CO2, Li-metal, Mg-S, Potassium-Ion, Na-metal, and Zn-ion. Some of these focus on large-scale electricity storage, while others are more attractive for use in vehicles, including those used in military operations.
    • Synthetic fuels gradually enter Defence but the impact of their use on the military material or on the single fuel concept still must be assessed. Research in this domain will thus include compatibility with the material and the behaviour of additives in these synthetic fuels.
    • Supercapacitors or ultracapacitors, which do not rely on electrochemical storage, provide another option for energy storage, with significant advantages in weight, safety, life, energy density, charging speed and toxicity.
    • Note that in terms of energy storage, there is a synergy with Research Areas 04 (which includes AI) and 06 (Smart and Advanced Materials). Indeed, new developments in energy storage can be driven by novel materials such as graphene and exotic battery chemistry, as well as stronger lightweight materials and novel designs supported by AI.
  • Power generation
    • The use of plasmas in the context of a European effort in the field of nuclear fusion.
    • As far as the use of wind turbines in a military context is concerned, research aims at the optimisation of the siting, the productivity of small and medium wind farms, as well as the reduction of the environmental nuisance related to them.
    • Solar power. Note that efficiency and effectiveness improvements are being driven down yearly to the point where they are now competitive with fossil fuels.
    • Biofuels research challenges, in general, are focused on addressing the many disadvantages of biofuels, such as costs, environmental damage, water use, land use, fuel quality and employment in existing systems.
    • Like biofuels, hydrogen is often touted as an alternative to fossil fuels. While there is substantial interest in hydrogen, most hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels, and it is unlikely to be a panacea in the search for green energy sources. An important exception are hydrogen panels, producing hydrogen from air moisture rather than from fossil fuels. These panels are solar powered and can therefore produce not only hydrogen, but also water and electricity.
    • In recent years, nuclear power, particularly fission, has developed a strongly negative reputation. Nevertheless, relevant research continues to create safer and more deployable systems. For example, thorium-based molten salt reactors (MSR).
    • Collecting low-level energy, i.e. capturing small quantities of energy available in the environment and converting it into electricity.
  • Power transmission
    • Wireless Power Transfer (WPT) is expected to mature, driven by the demands of modern battery-powered electronics. Specific areas of wireless power transfer of interest are capacitive, dynamic, underwater and for charging communication devices.
    • Microgrids will become increasingly important. Microgrids are localised power grids able to disconnect from the larger transmission grids, thereby increasing resilience and localizing power production. One of the major areas to be developed is overcoming the technical challenge of coordination and synchronisation with the main grid or other microgrids.
  • Propulsion
    • The electrification of military vehicles is very much at the early stages of development and faces considerable challenges.

Electrification of aircraft is another hot area of research, with several commercial vendors having demonstrated significant prototypes and announced near-production-ready aircraft.

* NATO Science & Technology Trends 2023 – 2043

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