Coming soon: urine-powered warfare

Start-up SiGNa Chemistry is piloting its fuel cell technology with the U.S. military. All that's required to power it is a tiny chemical hydrogen cartridge and some water - or pee.

Mini fuel cells like these can take 25 lbs off of a soldier's back

New York start-up SiGNa Chemistry, maker of mini fuel cells that charge smart phones, is piloting its technology with the U.S. military. All that's required to power the latest battlefield technology is a tiny chemical hydrogen cartridge and some water - or even urine.

The military could shave 25 pounds off of a soldier's gear by adopting the technology, CEO Michael Lefenfeld said in an interview yesterday.

SiGNa's fuel cells are non-toxic, work without recharging, and can be handled and disposed of safely, he added. The addition of water (or pee) initiates a chemical reaction that generates power instantly. It may sound funny, but that flexibility is what drew the military's attention.

Reducing or eliminating fossil fuels for power generation on the front lines simplifies wartime logistics, reduces maintenance costs, and eliminates the risk of attack on fuel convoys. Green technology has been a key solution, and the U.S. military has been exploring potential power sources over the past several years.

It's not trying to be altruistic; green energy is tactical. A Marine unit in Afghanistan has already  deployed portable solar blankets to keep radio batteries charged on long patrols, and uses solar tarps to light tents at night as a way to dramatically reduce fuel use at its command centers. But you can take the fuel cells camping.

The technology has been commercially available in Asia since 2011, and was demoed in the United States at the Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas last month as the PowerTrekk fuel cell smartphone recharger. The PowerTrekk (brought to market by Swedish fuel cell maker myFC) is now available in the U.S. through the outdoor recreation equipment chain REI. REI will provide refill cartridges and recycle empties for a few dollars.

One cartridge will charge a cell phone up to two times, said Lefenfeld. The cartridges have an indefinite shelf life and are safe to ship and store over long periods of time. That is due to a sodium powder that SiGNa invented, which releases hydrogen when it reacts with water (or pee), but is otherwise stable. The powder was developed as an alternative to reactive alkali metals and their derivatives, a spokesperson explained.

The fuel cells are safer to transport on an airplane than lithium ion batteries, and are useful for a range of consumer applications, Lefenfeld said. Those could include powering electric bicycles or installing fuel cells as emergency backup power sources in cars. In the near term, the company is working with its partners to produce higher capacity products to charge more energy hungry electronics such as iPads or laptops.

Somewhere Bear Grylls is smiling.

(Image Credit: Rafe Needleman/CNET)

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