Our future soldiers in the midst of a battle might reach for radio battery packs made of lightweight extruded plastic, if government-funded research by two companies bears fruit.
Those companies, film extruder Pliant Corp. of Schaumburg, Ill., and Extrusion Dies Inc. of Chippewa Falls, Wis., plan to work with close to $10 million in government funding to create the new-look communications power sources for the U.S. Army.
``Imagine radios packed today in metallic boxes that are fairly heavy,'' said Greg Gard, Pliant's senior vice president of technology. ``These would be dramatically lighter and endure temperatures that could range from subzero to high heat.''
If the research brings results, fighting troops in tropical climates or on frozen tundra would wear a more-resilient, easier-to-carry radio device. That device in many cases would be attached to a soldier's clothing or worn on the back of battle fatigues.
The device, called a pouch cell, consists of two parts. One is a solid-polymer electrolyte battery system, fully rechargeable and made to withstand abuse in the field. Consider the size of a small, cellular-phone battery, and you have a good idea what the potential battery could look like, Gard said.
The battery could even use lithium-ion components found in cell-phone units, he said. It can be thrown away and easily replaced, he said.
The second part, or the pouch that holds the battery components, would be made of flexible plastic, possibly coextruded, Gard said. Pliant is considering coated polyester laminates, foils and a variety of barrier materials for the flexible packaging piece.
That promising work, potentially leading to other consumer applications, is centered in western Wisconsin in a rural area near Eau Claire.
Pliant has been developing the power sources for more than a year at a pilot facility at its Chippewa Falls film extrusion plant. The packaging company already has received defense contracts totaling $4.5 million to develop the battery component and flexible pouch.
The first, 18-month contract, for $2.4 million, began a year ago. Pliant recently received another $2.1 million in funding for the communications equipment. A recent Defense Department budget bill, passed June 24 by the House Appropriations Committee, would tack on another $9.6 million next year for the project, almost half of that going to die maker EDI in Chippewa Falls and the rest to Pliant. The full Congress still must approve the bill.
EDI, a maker of flat extrusion dies and coating heads for cast-film producers, believes it is well-suited to work on the project, said President and Chief Executive Officer Tim Callahan. If awarded the contract, the company would use its flat-die technology to assist with the battery components, Callahan said.
``We're a long way from an award contract,'' Callahan said. ``But we're excited that we could have an impact on the military, using EDI's technology to improve our defense system. Our role would be to help take it from concept to a more production-worthy product.''
The project was spearheaded by U.S. Congressman David Obey (D-Wausau, Wis.), the top-ranking democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, who represents communities in that portion of the Dairy State. Obey is attempting to create a high-tech business sector in western Wisconsin, said his press spokesman, Tom Powell-Bullock.
``We don't take this project lightly,'' Powell-Bullock said. ``The task of getting [Army] personnel where they need to be involves equipment in good working order. If we have an improved, longer-lasting power source that is lighter, that helps the Army to be better ready to go in various emergencies.''
The high-energy battery cells would have a longer shelf life than today's metallic components, allowing them to be readily pulled from storage and into service in time of crisis, Powell-Bullock said.
But the project is not yet a slam-dunk, Gard said. Past attempts by companies to make battery packaging from similar materials has led to leakages or problems with seal integrity, Gard said. The company is attempting some new approaches to overcome those challenges.
Coming up with the right high-barrier material to withstand those temperature extremes, whether in jungle heat or icy climates, is a main focus, he said.
The company has set up a pilot plant in Chippewa Falls with four technicians and Gard shuttling between there and Schaumburg. The plant has added a five- to seven-layer pilot line and a seven-layer blown film line to conduct the research.
Two smaller, laboratory extrusion lines recently were added, Gard said. And with money from the recent defense contract, the company also has purchased measuring equipment for oxygen- and moisture-barrier systems, he said.
The Chippewa Falls plant has been expanding beyond the test facility. The site added three monolayer extrusion lines a year ago and continues to look at adding equipment, Gard said.
Until now, Pliant and several other film producers have had limited experience in defense applications. If the work is successful, it could lead to lighter-weight battery systems for such consumer products as cell phones and personal computers, Gard said.
``If you pick up your cell phone, a battery made with flexible packaging could be much smaller in size,'' Gard said. ``We think the technology is viable, and we're hopeful to get to that point. But it could be awhile yet.''