A pilot program launched by the Office of Naval Research, or ONR, in late 2015 is beginning to bear fruit.
The Naval Enterprise Partnership Teaming with Universities for National Excellence initiative, or NEPTUNE, pairs ONR researchers with academia in an effort to break new ground in alternative energy and encourage scientific inquiry.
ONR and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently announced one of the early outcomes that effort. It's a portable measurement system designed to precisely monitor the amount of energy consumed by anything from a small household appliance to a large piece of military equipment.
"In the past, for a lot of monitoring you would have to have an electrician cut the lines and place a device physically within the lines. With this unit you can strap it to the outside of the power line, so it is not intrusive and it is very portable," said Maria Medeiros, program officer, ONR Sea Warfare and Weapons Department, Sea Platforms and Weapons Division.
Developers envision the device will be used on ships and in forward operating bases, situations where commanders need a quick and convenient means to keep tabs on power consumption.
The device is being tested as a prototype on the Coast Guard cutter Spencer out of Boston. Ship's captains and field commanders need to track power consumption first in order to gauge how much fuel they need to carry. They also use these metrics to track system performance, perform diagnostics and plan maintenance.
"You can see if it is a steady state mode or if there is a blip in it. Is there a pump going off? Is the current flow decreasing over time? All this tells you something about the state of your systems," Medeiros said.
"If you are on a ship you don’t want the system to go offline, ... this allows you to do preventive maintenance. If you see an issue coming up you can take steps to find out what is wrong. It could be a faulty wire, it may be something that could be prevented," she said.
For field units, the monitor might be attached to an air conditioner, heater or backup power supply. Data could help commanders to develop usage profiles, which in turn would allow engineers to optimize these units to ensure they run most efficiently during peak demand times.
Developers have worked through a range of technical challenges in their efforts to develop the device, which takes the form of a 4-by-6 inch box and a rudimentary display, akin to what one sees on an oscilloscope. The biggest challenge came in regard to shielding the devices from the electrical systems.
"You want these sensors to not be interfering with anything else that they are close to, and you don’t want anything interfering with them," Medeiros said. "They also need to be robust. If they are going to be on ships and bases, things get dropped, so you want to account for that."
Even as ONR fine-tunes its prototype meter, other NEPTUNE projects are under way. At the University of California at Davis, for example, researchers are working to improve high-energy rechargeable lithium batteries and developing new energy auditing and decision-making tools.
Purdue University researchers meanwhile have been working on a number of NEPTUNE-related projects, including the development of low-cost, high-performance electrode materials for Na-ion batteries, low-cost means for portable hydrogen generation and on-demand power, and studies on aviation fuel performance.
While the power meter is one of the first projects out of the gate, developers say it probably isn’t ready for full-scale deployment yet. They’d like to see some enhancements to that rudimentary user interface before sending out the device for wider usage.
"We want to make sure we can display that information in a user-friendly way," Medeiros said. "Right now it shows you trends, but it needs to be more like a dashboard, very visual and very user friendly. That’s where we are going next."