Powering the Future: Electrifying the U.S. Army's Tactical Fleet with Dr. Todd Davidson
1st November, 2023
In this episode, we delve into the complexities of electrifying the U.S. Army's tactical fleet and installation resilience. Dr. Todd Davidson, an expert in sustainable infrastructure and energy systems, shares his insights into the challenges and opportunities associated with transitioning military vehicles to electric power. He discusses the importance of maintaining tactical capabilities, the role of primary and secondary energy supplies, and the potential advantages of silent, electrified vehicles in combat situations. Don't miss out on this insightful discussion on Inside West Point: Ideas That Impact.
0:00:00 Introduction to the podcast and the guest, Dr. Todd Davidson
Dean: [00:00:00] Welcome to Inside West Point, Ideas That Impact. I'm Brigadier General Shane Reeves, the Dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point. Through a series of discussions, we will show you a different side of West Point where we will make even our most complex initiatives accessible to broad audiences and give you an inside view to our cross-disciplinary work, which is being applied throughout the world.
he Center for Innovation and [:
His work has been published in numerous peer reviewed journals and in national outlets including Fortune, Forbes and Bloomberg. He's also been interviewed by national media including NPR's Marketplace and the New York Times and has testified before the Committee of Agricultural, Water and Rural Affairs within the Texas State Senate.
nced energy storage devices. [:
Dr. Davidson holds a B. S. in engineering science from Trinity University, and an M. S. and Ph. D. in mechanical engineering from U. T. Austin. Todd, thanks for joining me today. Thanks for joining the podcast.
Dr. Davidson: Thanks for having me, sir.
Dean: Before we discuss your research and your teaching, how did you end up at West Point?
ne project, my senior design [:
They thought we were crazy. They gave us something like 1, 500 or 2, 000, and we literally went and scavenged like an old turbo out of an old Mercedes, and built this little gas turbine engine, this little jet engine. It was awesome. It was like, you know, literally 2, 000, busted the oil pump, all this stuff.
rate more effectively. So in [:
And the gas turbine work really took off when I got to UT Austin. I worked with one of my great mentors, Dr. David Bogard, who was a leading, thought leader in the space of gas turbines. And we were looking at, In short, if you run them hotter, they run more efficiently. So you get more bang for your buck, either more electricity or you get more propulsion for your aircraft.
multaneously, that means you [:
So you gotta get real creative on that stuff. So that then led me into the segue into the world of energy. And energy became, as now, this deep passion of mine. But you can kind of see this confluence that happened for me, which is that I've always actually looked for opportunities and ways to serve in my own right, even though I'm not wearing a green uniform.
Raytheon at that time, or by [:
Dean: Has your time working in a startup been helpful in your transition to West Point?
hen we had this opportunity, [:
And so we went after it. And we had some amazing successes. We partnered with the Air Force, the Department of Energy. We got some really neat stuff done. But at the end of the day, our product, which was this graphene based supercapacitor, this basically, imagine like, a piece of paper that's accepted to a single atom thick, which is graphene.
aterials. that are in either [:
And you get a lot of experience very quickly if you have to try to get a company off the ground and manage everything along the way.
Dean: Yeah, so, your work focuses on the intersection between energy and defense, which as become increasingly important within. I mean, it's always been important, but it has really gone to the forefront here, you know, in the last 10 to 20 years.
do with energies, batteries, [:
Dr. Davidson: Sure. So if it's not already evident, I'm definitely an energy nerd and I will label myself accordingly proud of it. So yeah. I think the most important place to start on that question is the acknowledgement that energy is foundational to the advancement of the human condition, that with, without energy, humanity does not thrive.
sumption. The challenge with [:
And those issues may be directly related to climate change. They may also be just directly related to the fact that we're burning through resources that may be finite. Which, finite resources if you and your neighbor are not very good friends and then one of you doesn't have water and the other one does, you may very well end up in significant conflict in the future.
And in my opinion, one of the, if not the grand challenge of our time is delivering clean, abundant, affordable energy to a growing global population while simultaneously trying to mitigate the effects of some of [00:07:12] these energy security issues. Because if we don't it does have the potential to be a very real issue that will impair our ability as humanity to thrive in the future.
So how it's interrelated with defense, coming back to your initial question, it's so intricately linked that it's hard to even separate. It almost gets to the point where you could literally claim, without energy, I cannot have defense and without defense, I do not have energy.
Dean: So pivoting to your current research on these topics what project or projects are you currently working on?
Dr. Davidson: Sure. So, [:
Army Climate Strategy. And so there are very real goals in the Army Climate Strategy focused on how do we sort of accelerate electrification of the fleet, which comes with significant opportunities and challenges. And so we've got a team of five cadets from systems and civil and mechanical [00:08:24] engineering programs looking at what are these challenges, what are these opportunities to both reduce our environmental footprint, improve our resilience, maintain, if not improve our mission capability and reduce our costs and environmental footprint along the way.
So that project then leads to. trying to figure out, okay, where and what vehicles are viable to be replaced as electric vehicles. And specifically, I'm talking about the non tactical fleet for the moment. Happy to talk about tactical if you'd like. Where and what vehicles could we replace?
tates, the grid is not, it's [:
Okay. Which means that for the most part, most places vast majority of places, an electric vehicle really is, has lower life cycle emissions than a conventional internal combustion engine. But there are other challenges that are at play, which is that you need to drive an electric vehicle for a while before you get a break even point.
break even and now from then [:
But you also get into other really fascinating stuff, which is electric vehicles are mobile power sources. And so from a resilience and from a resiliency standpoint, from a [00:10:12] reliability standpoint, you now have power sources that can eventually essentially move and immediately provide electric power.
We see that in the Ford F 150 Lightning. We see that in other hybrids that have immediately power take offs that are now available on some of these trucks. We could do something similar with internal combustions engines as well, but we have these inevitable trade offs. What is the goal?
What is the outcome that we're trying to achieve? So the U. S. Army Climate Strategy sets these big aspirational targets that we're trying to help ASAI and AET. Try to aspire to understand how we get there.
connection between research, [:
And our mission is to educate, train, inspire the Corps of Cadets to be officers in our Army. And so can you just talk a little bit about how you see the connection between these efforts and those cadets that are involved in it and how this is helping them develop into being, you know, effective and long term future officers.
en kind of a civilian focused[:
But let's try to put it in the context of the Army as well. Specifically in the, yeah, in the context of the Department of Defense and specifically the Army. So by some measures, right, we have spent upwards of 100 per gallon of fuel to get fuel into the battlefield in certain places, in certain theaters in recent years, or in recent conflicts.
been associated with idling. [:
An Abrams tank has a gas turbine engine, literally like a jet engine, that's in the back of it, and it's just turning through JP 8, sitting on the battlefield. Which then results in us needing more fuel, more water, et cetera, being brought to the battlefield. If we can reduce the needs for fuel and water in the battlefield, it is quite literally saving both dollars and more importantly, lives.
just on climate change, it's [:
So it's all a win if we can get better at thinking about how do we improve our systems, our energy and water systems. That is so critical for our future Army officers to understand the complexity of this problem. The other aspect that I haven't really even touched on yet, right, that because as an engineer, I have a tendency to talk about engineering and energy [00:13:12] issues, et cetera, right, get kind of wonky into the technical details.
But there are so many aspects of this problem that are not technical, that are exceptionally challenging problems. There's financial issues, there's legal issues there's human dynamic issues and social issues associated with all these problems, which is why it becomes such an issue a fascinating and challenging interdisciplinary project, which is why it's perfect for it to be here at a place like West Point across all of our departments.
ry much an interdisciplinary [:
Dr. Davidson: Sure. So I'm not going to say it in classic army fashion.
We've got a great acronym. But actually we are very very happy of this name because it really encompasses everything that we're talking about, which is circus, sustainable infrastructure, resilience, and climate consortium. And it's very purposefully acknowledging all three of those issues, sustainable infrastructure, resilience, and climate, because they were all critical issues to the department of defense and the American public more broadly.
nts here at the academy. The [:
Dean: And, what was the impetus for it?
ger in Andy Fluger in Jeanne.[:
Brad McCoy from CME, but now works in your, on your team as well, sir. And then myself. We were all working on similar topics, and then further acknowledging the amount of work that is happening across all of post that is associated with these things. That includes Adam Kulcastein it includes Amy Richman, it includes Mark, Colonel Mark Reed, it includes Charlotte Holm.
on either the technical, the [:
So it's really a pretty exceptional blend of people who have deep technical expertise. Huge number of Ph. D. s that are, exist here, right, within the context of the Army. But also these civilians and these Army officers, who bring this amazing understanding of what is really needed to accomplish our mission in the field.
ission of what we need to be [:
Dean: And you just mentioned interdisciplinary versus transdisciplinary, or you used them, maybe synonymous, and I think that's one of the things that makes the CERC so interesting to me is you're collaborating at the very beginning. You may say, hey, there's a technical question here, but we probably should go talk to someone from the, you know, from the law department, or we should go talk to somebody [00:16:48] from, you know, who knows a little bit more about about, you know, strategy.
And you all collaborate at the beginning in trying to solve the problem in a collaborative way, so that when you get to the solution at the end, it's not putting it together, it's already been. Looked at from a multi faceted approach and comes up with a very comprehensive answer or solution. Which I think is what makes the CERC so, so exciting.
How are cadets involved with the CERC?
a faculty member on projects [:
And those projects have spanned everything from understanding like wastewater treatment to I know people that are working on sort of machine learning and how is that going to help us understand our energy consumption across the entire DOD landscape.
ptional partners down at the [:
So they were down, literally embedded in their office in the Pentagon, working on these issues of problems that are contemporary for that very day. Hearing problems that leadership, civilian and officer leadership are dealing with in the Pentagon associated with. Okay, how do I improve the resilience of an installation, whether it be a hurricane or some climate induced issue or it's a man made impact of somebody attacking infrastructure.
understand how do I make an [:
And the capstone opportunities exist in essentially all of our departments. And now through circ. produces or creates an impetus and an opportunity to have really transdisciplinary, as you note capstone efforts across multiple departments focused on some of these issues.
f the things that makes that [:
And I think this is actually a almost a pilot for a broader effort here at the academy to try to drive innovation more in this transdisciplinary way because one of the things that the academy has going for it is this, as you highlighted, this extraordinary number of PhDs that are concentrated here, but they're spread across a very broad academic program that ranges across the nation.
STEM to humanities to social [:
Dr. Davidson: Sure. Let's start from the single most important thing, which is precisely what ASA IA& E helped understand the vision of why we were establishing CERC when they helped provide support, which is that this CERC is intended to help enhance our educational and research initiatives on this topic for the betterment of our cadets to ensure that when they commission a second lieutenants, [00:20:24] that they understand the complexity of this problem.
our environmental footprint, [:
So I, I believe that CERC has a really unique role to play within the Army to help not only mature our second lieutenants, but also our second and third graduating classes. are rotating officers who come back through and teach here at West Point to look and understand the complexity of this problem and then roll back out into the force and say, hey, you know, maybe we should be installing heat pumps at this installation instead of using an oil burner or a natural gas burner because [00:21:36] it really is more efficient.
And now modern heat pumps really can give me the temperatures that I need even in Fort Jerome. And so those type of solutions that exist out in the marketplace, we can bring them into our installations to make them more energy efficient, to potentially reduce our costs, et cetera, et cetera.
So there's a lot of opportunity I think that CERC has to play.
Dean: Any lessons that you learned from starting a company that has helped you in this beginning of standing up this consortium known as the CERC?
hips are incredibly valuable [:
And if we have an aligned vision and that aligned vision being that we need to do our very best to educate these young men and women in, in a way that will ensure that they contribute To the nation and fortunately here at the academy, we actually do have an ecosystem where for the most, we are incredibly aligned on that.
t's amazing place because we [:
And if we can, think about it that way, which is the same way that I think you need to consider how to build and create a startup it's we need to find partners and grow from that perspective, essentially grow the pie together.
Dean: Yeah, how has all [:
Dr. Davidson: I try to take a lot. And So that, is, the courses that I have taught, I think it's so relevant to all of these topics, so think about fluid mechanics, just one. So thermodynamics and energy conversion systems, those, if you're familiar with the space, like those immediately sound, okay, well, that's got to be something associated with energy. Well, let's talk about fluid mechanics, maybe for one moment to kind of steel man, the conversation, fluid mechanics, the United States Army Corps of Engineers is the single largest producer of [00:24:00] hydroelectric power in the United States.
Well, there's an enormous opportunity for our engineers who graduate from here, go into the engineering core. To be aware of that, and to be aware of that USACE essentially has all of these amazing assets in their control that could quite literally help us continue to modernize our electric grid and use those, for instance, like pumped hydro storage.
ilities to essentially store [:
So there's just, there's a great opportunity across the board.
Dean: That's amazing. Okay, so the U. S. Army has a climate strategy that's focused on installation energy resilience, as you know. Also discussion on electrification of vehicles and more. How does all that relate to the CERC?
n: So, the Russians attacked [:
Because if you think about Sort of the cascading reliance on energy. It's just immense. It's arguably the single most important thing for us to be able to execute a mission. You think about [00:25:48] communications, right? Your battery is only going to potentially last so long. And we need to be able to recharge either from a hydrocarbon standpoint or an electrical standpoint in order to complete our mission.
dea of energy security nexus.[:
And, we have the same challenges or issues that we have to think about. On the continental United States, because particularly with interconnected nature of the Internet, we fortress America is remains a fortress, but it's a different fortress than it was not that long ago, and as a result, you know, we had a cyber attack on the colonial pipeline.
. I mean, wow. And you think [:
Whether it's man made, a man made issue from a bad actor, or it's a climate driven or a weather issue, or it's a typical resilience thing from say earthquakes or whatever it might be. We've got to be aware of these threats that are either immediately here or on the horizon.
Dean: So that's, that's interesting.
l infrastructure categories. [:
But is the CERC thinking broadly like that? Is it reached out to those who think about cyber attacks? Are they, is it reached out to other forms of energy? Where does nuclear energy fit into all of this discussion?
you see the CERC becoming in [:
Dr. Davidson: Great question. So, we have significant appetite, but our stomachs are only so large, so I would offer up that I think we're trying to remain kind of laser focused on issues that are directly related to what we would kind of conventionally describe as sustainability, resilience within the context of energy and water, and then, and potentially climate related issues.
everage the expertise of our [:
in the future directly associated with CERC. We would love to see that being an opportunity for us to continue. We are beginning to set up essentially a community of interest around CERC, and it may very well become a critical part of the conversation. To your other question about nuclear and how does that play major topic.
And in the context of the Department of Defense, Yeah, micro reactors, small modular reactors have a really interesting role to play, I believe, in the not too distant future. of improving the resilience of our installations. [00:30:00] And I would go so far to say that we should probably be giving real consideration, and I know we actually in many ways are, to how do we incorporate these into critical infrastructure in places where we really believe we cannot lose power to these certain areas or this larger installation or whatever it might be.
with batteries, backup power [:
Is nuclear in play? Project Pele is a real thing. And the Department of Defense... What is Project Pele? It's an effort collaboration between the Department of Defense and Department of Energy to build... The equivalent of tactical micro reactors or small module reactors, depending on your definition of what micro versus small is delivering something on the order of one to five megawatts.
watt. So one megawatt is like:
Dean: Yeah. So, I'm going to take this back to your discussion about electrification of the Army's non tactical fleet of vehicles. Can you just transition and talk about the tactical fleet of vehicles?
o lead off with is that this [:
It requires us to then potentially change or rethink about, okay, we have to now put that in the context of the DOD and specifically the U. S. Army. And I think it's critical to lead off this conversation with saying that, in my opinion, as well as every leader that I've heard in this space from the Pentagon and elsewhere, [00:32:24] acknowledge and immediately say up front.
We're not going to do anything that reduces its tactical capability or the ability of our vehicles to operate in the way that they need to operate. I have quite literally stood in front of my, some of the cadets and such that I have mentored, acknowledging and thinking about that I would never advocate for something that would put their lives at risk, because it has potentially a change or lesser difference in tactical capability.
e are unique and non obvious [:
So in a scout position, think about the immense tactical advantage there is. I credit him for bringing this up the other day. And I saw it also at Detroit Arsenal a handful of months ago. But think about the immense tactical advantage that there is for having a vehicle that is essentially completely silent, as well as having essentially no thermal signature.
Poof. It disappears. And [:
Dean: Where's the single point of failure? Is it the grid? I mean, I under, I totally understand the tactical advantage of a silent electrified vehicle, but they still have to get the energy from somewhere. And I know I'm not, this isn't my space, so I'm trying to just. Somewhere, where is somehow energy is being produced that's, that [00:34:12] is fueling all this.
So where is that coming from?
Dr. Davidson: That's exactly right. So, one of the ways that we describe energy, or I think an important way to describe energy, is thinking about energy as either primary energy supplies or secondary energy supplies. And a primary energy supply comes from something that essentially exists naturally.
s, whether it be tidal energy[:
So a secondary source would be like gasoline. or hydrogen or electricity. And so to get electricity, we have to harness an initial primary energy supply. And that's right there. You hit the nail on the head because that is, that's the challenge associated with tactical vehicles, electrifying tactical vehicles, because I still need a primary energy supply.
lefield, so I need to either [:
All have immense trade offs. So believe me, this again emphasizes, there is no easy answer in a lot of this conversation, which is why it needs to be across multiple departments, multiple people trying to figure this thing out. If we bring JP8 to the battlefield, okay, are we actually reducing our [00:36:00] carbon emissions?
Are we actually improving our tactical advantage? It's not immediately clear right now. But if we can hybridize vehicles, which we are doing, putting anti idle on tanks, etc. Then yes, immediate advantage, immediate win. Even if I'm continuing to burn JP8, I have an immediate win in terms of hybridizing or going partially electric vehicles.
though, that, One issue that [:
What I don't think we're actually fully acknowledging is that vehicles of the future may look very different than they do now. And changing those vehicles whether it be through robotics or UAVs or whatever it might be, may totally change the landscape of what a future battlefield looks like. And as a result, the energy supply to those vehicles may be very different or the supply line for energy to those vehicles may be very different, and it may actually enable opportunities to electrify them more than [00:37:12] one would immediately assume.
Dean: Yeah, that's, that's interesting because, I mean, immediately my mind did go to what you said, which is this getting the cart before the horse, right? Are you solving one problem but not addressing the big problem? Because there are, I think, a few facts you could assume. Especially as you pointed out, we're looking at this from a military necessity perspective, which is like, what is our imperative to do these things?
ical vehicles that are going [:
And so I'm glad to hear that we're thinking about all this, but your point about how the vehicles may look differently, that may be true in the future, but as of right now, we were pretty much set on what we have, or at least it looks like we're gonna have really heavy armored vehicles that have to move and fueling them in a, you know, with, you know, an electrified way, not a hybrid, but electrified.
Is that realistic? Is that something that we like we could see in the next few years? Are we talking, you know, 50 years into the future?
ynamics had, was showing the [:
Close to a horsepower. So, if. If that motor gets upgraded, you could have a vehicle that has As much, if not more torque than the existing gas turbine and...
Dean: With no, with no reduction in capability in terms of like 80 tons and be able to move as far and as fast.
now that the weight of that [:
Because of the engine as well as the modified. Well, I don't speak at all in length because it's not my, that specific vehicle is not my area of expertise, but they modified a number of things, including an auto loader and a handful of things. That, that changed the vehicle and I believe it is less than the sort of standard 80 tons.
e test track. And we were at [:
I mean, you step on the quote unquote gas, you step on the accelerator and it's going to slam you into the back of the seat in ways that, I mean, we don't typically see with an internal combustion engine. And there, there are unique tactical advantages to these things that are worth continuing to explore and kind of push the envelope on without a doubt.
iversity of Texas in Austin, [:
Dr. Davidson: I would offer up that one, it's, it is an incredible place where I've seen that the institution, right, has a driving mission. There's, we've got a North Star, which I think is amazing. I would also offer up that teaching these young men and women is an exceptional opportunity to leave a positive wake.
ally important phrase to me. [:
Dean: What has surprised you about cadets?
nning hard depending on your [:
Like class actually starts, like everybody's there and they stand up and they acknowledge you. They're ready to roll. And which is a unique thing compared to most institutions. So it's just a very unique, fun place to work.
Dean: So what's your favorite Army vehicle?
es. I guess it's hard to not [:
So I'm, it'll be neat. It'll be interesting to see how this
Dean: plays out. That's a fascinating thought. Okay. So, well, thanks Todd. Thanks for sharing your impactful ideas with us today. And thanks to all of you for listening. Please be sure to tune in to the inside West Point Ideas that Impact Podcast next month.
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