University of South Carolina

Student-led team earns $25,000 to develop remote fuel supply for military drones

By Steven Powell,, 803-777-1923

The American military relies more than ever on drones, and unmanned air vehicles are getting a boost from students at USC this spring. A team of engineering students is one of three student groups at USC to earn $25,000 in research funding from the 2012 Fuel Cell Challenge. The money is supporting them in a six-month effort to develop a device that will improve the effectiveness of drones, particularly in military applications.

Drones are a vital part of our national defense, and when fuel cells were recently developed as on-board power sources, their effectiveness was dramatically enhanced. The Stalker XE, a drone produced by Lockheed-Martin, for example, can run for two to four hours with batteries alone, but more than 20 hours with a solid oxide fuel cell added to the vehicle.

The key to staying airborne longer is the density of energy in the power source. Batteries store relatively dilute quantities of energy, whereas solid oxide fuel cells can generate electricity from more-energy-dense propane – the same liquid found in pressurized canisters attached to common gas grills.

For military use, though, propane is sometimes hard to come by – it’s not as simple as swapping out a tank at the local home improvement store if you’re in a remote desert overseas. But one fuel source that is plentiful in just about any U.S. military operation is JP-8, which is a kerosene-based jet fuel, and more. It’s as common as camouflage: since the 1990s it’s been used not just for jets, but as a replacement for diesel fuel in military heaters, tanks, electrical generators, and more. JP-8 greatly simplifies logistics by serving as a common, catch-all fuel source in forward military operations.

Sungtak Kim, a third-year chemical engineering graduate student, has developed a laboratory-scale device that can “crack” JP-8, reforming it as propane. Kim works under the direction of Jochen Lauterbach, a professor of chemical engineering and the director of the SmartState Center for Strategic Approaches to the Generation of Electricity (SAGE). The catalytic system “can generate a little more than a gram of propane per hour from JP-8 right now,” said Kim.

The opportunity to develop a commercially viable device from a promising laboratory-scale system drew the interest of Kai Mayeda, a fifth-year graduate student working with polymers and Yanjiao Yi, a fourth-year graduate student working in sulfide catalysis. Together with Kim and advisors Lauterbach and Erdem Sasmaz, a senior scientist working at SAGE, the group formed SAGE Enterprises to develop a commercially viable system for converting JP-8 into propane.

Scaling up the output is the key to success in the marketplace. “We need to be able to produce about 300 grams of propane per hour for a commercial product,” said Mayeda. “And scaling up 250 times is not a trivial task, although we have a clear idea of what to do from preliminary experimental data.”

The team envisions the Fuel Cell Challenge funding will enable them to create a prototype with intermediate output, and in so doing ascertain whatever problems might be most pronounced in the full-range scale-up process.

“Our sunset goal is building an independent system that can provide 300 grams per hour of propane,” said Sasmaz. “But in the next six months we want to get prototypes working at about 25 times our current setup, which is still a big change but a reasonable target.”

“That’s the research part of it. But at the same time we are running experiments and making calculations, we’ll also apply for more funding – Kai is working on that specifically, a business plan.”

The team is confident that further funding – whether from other grants, venture capital, or elsewhere – will carry them forward to commercial fruition. It’s big business, after all. “The drone market, for all unmanned aerial vehicles, is estimated to be about $30 billion worldwide by 2015,” said Sasmaz.

“The nice thing about this project is that the end market is a very stiff-demand market,” said Mayeda. “If you’re working with military applications, they need power now, and at any cost. The market is so large and the demand is so stiff that we think a product like this will have no trouble.”

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Posted: 02/08/13 @ 9:00 AM | Updated: 02/05/13 @ 12:00 PM | Permalink