Air Force wants to go organic for better energy storage

AFRL's SOFT program aims to use biotechnology and flexible electronics to boost the energy capacity of sensors and other devices.

The Air Force is looking to tap into nature in order to increase the energy storage capacity of sensors and other devices—and to create those devices using flexible electronics.

The Air Force Research Laboratory has awarded a $45 million contract to UES Inc. for research into using biotechnology and materials biologically derived or inspired materials along with flexible electronics in devices for energy storage, according to the contract announcement. The work is part of AFRL’s Soft Organic Functional Technology (SOFT) program, which aims to apply biotechnology in creating hybrid energy devices and functions for sensing, communications and electro-optical applications.

The research, which will explore the development of advanced, unique structures based on biological examples, could be used in Air Force applications such as biometric and health-monitoring sensors, bio-based fuel contamination, printable electronics, stretchable metals and multifunctional materials, according to the original solicitation, which was issued in April. The results could allow for the kind of rapid-prototyping and quick production of parts for everything from communications devices to components of weapons systems.

Flexible, printable electronics is something the Defense Department has been exploring through its various research labs. Among the projects underway are ways to print electronics onto clothing, such as an antenna onto a helmet or biosensors onto clothing.

With plans for lots of deployed, IP-connected sensors, one of the challenges ahead is power. Batteries have limited life and those sensors can’t always be plugged in. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is researching one way around the problem with its N-ZERO program, which seeks to develop sensors that could lie dormant until triggered by a predetermined signature, such as a radio-frequency signal, vibrations from a passing vehicle or other event.

N-ZERO would greatly extend the battery life for those devices (the program also wants to significantly reduce the size and weight of batteries), but that would still only work for sensors that monitor things that don’t happen every often. Depending on their use, other sensors would have to be persistent—always on—so finding ways to increase their energy storage would be useful.

Work on the project, which will be performed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where AFRL is headquartered, is expected to be completed by Dec. 30, 2021.

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