New Army Energy Lab Drives the Future

July 2012
By Max Cacas, SIGNAL Magazine


The Ground Systems Power and Energy Laboratory (GSPEL) is the newest addition to the Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center, U.S. Army Garrison–Detroit Arsenal in Warren, Michigan. Left: GSPEL’s Power and Energy Vehicle Environmental Lab includes dynamometers that can test heavy trucks, like this palletized loading system, under any environmental condition imaginable for energy and powertrain efficiency.

Efficient powertrains for ground vehicles reduce fuel needs, lessening the risk to warfighters.

The U.S. Army has opened a one-of-a-kind laboratory that gives the service unprecedented ability to research and test new energy and powertrain technologies. The goal is to develop the next generation of energy-efficient vehicles that will make troops less dependent on fossil fuels that must be delivered via supply lines that endanger soldiers.

The Ground Systems Power and Energy Laboratory (GSPEL) is part of the Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC), located at the U.S. Army Garrison–Detroit Arsenal in Warren, Michigan. The $60 million facility opened in April after three years of construction.

 “Until recently, the Army focused primarily on survivability and the capabilities of its vehicles, but not [on] fuel efficiency,” explains Jennifer Hitchcock, interim director of TARDEC. “However, since about 70 to 80 percent of the convoys in Afghanistan are hauling fuel, reducing our consumption and the number of fuel convoys will take thousands of soldiers out of harm’s way. The Army is aggressively seeking new technologies to become more efficient and to reduce consumption, which would reduce the logistics tail in battle and ultimately increase the capabilities of the warfighter.”

The new energy-efficient technologies being developed at GSPEL potentially could be integrated into military ground vehicles. This significantly affects the way energy is used in the future, Hitchcock suggests.

“Having the energy we need, when we need it, to accomplish the mission, is vital,” she says, and even small cost savings can add up to a lot over time. “Less fuel, more fight.”

Since World War II, TARDEC has served as the development facility for most major Defense Department combat vehicles, from tanks to Humvees. Hitchcock says GSPEL, with its eight component laboratories under one roof (see box), will for the first time enable TARDEC to test new vehicle systems rigorously for energy efficiency as well as for their ability to serve combat needs.

“GSPEL gives us the flexibility to test individual system components or entire vehicle systems,” she explains, “on simulations of any terrain in the world and in extreme environmental conditions ranging from minus 60 degrees up to 160 degrees Fahrenheit.”

In the past, it was common practice to ship vehicles to locations around the globe to perform field tests and then ship them back to the lab to analyze the data, Hitchcock recalls. “Since GSPEL accomplishes this at a single location,” she says, “it saves time and money.”

GSPEL enables TARDEC to test even large supply trucks, with as many as five axles and weighing as much as 44 tons, and to perform those tests in laboratories that can simulate the harshest weather and terrain conditions imaginable. “Being able to test both individual components and then retest them as part of the entire vehicle system is a tremendous capability that we never had before,” she says. “The test results of components can significantly change after you integrate them in a vehicle, which affects loads and requirements. GSPEL allows us to conduct more thorough testing.”

GSPEL Is Eight Labs in One

Power and Energy Vehicle Environmental Lab—Provides full mission profile testing for vehicles in any environmental conditions and contains one of the largest drive-through environmental chambers in the world.

Hybrid Electric Components Lab

—Performs state-of-the-art evaluation of hybrid electric power trains and develops hybrid motor technology.

Fuel Cell Lab

—Enables engineers to develop and evaluate fuel cell components and systems. The laboratory has the capability to test anything from components to full systems and from watts to kilowatts.

Power Lab

—Evaluates charging, air conditioning and hydraulic systems. The laboratory will develop high-voltage electrical devices and integrate pulse power
and directed energy at the network and system levels.

Thermal Management Lab

—Tests the heat management of ground vehicle power electronics. The lab contains the world’s largest calorimeter for testing radiators, charge-air coolers and oil coolers.

Air Filtration Lab

—Tests and evaluates the air filtration systems for all military ground vehicle systems.

Calorimeter Lab

—Helps develop high-voltage, direct current electrical devices and tests the efficiency of electrical power distribution and control strategy. The lab consists of high-, low- and tri-voltage power supplies.

Energy Storage Lab

—Explosion-proof testing chambers make it possible to safely test and evaluate advanced chemistry battery vehicle modules.
Customer needs when it comes to energy and powertrain use will determine the specific types of testing to be performed on vehicles at GSPEL, according to Chuck Coutteau, TARDEC associate director for ground vehicle power and mobility, and interim executive director for research and technology integration. The type of test to be performed on a component or a vehicle can reflect a need or condition uncovered by troops in the field “to something much more grand and complicated when it comes to a capability gap,” Coutteau explains. GSPEL’s resources will be valuable tool in examining the best technology to fill that gap, while optimizing energy use and conservation at the same time, he says.

Another feature at GSPEL is the ability to link any of its laboratories with other research and testing facilities within TARDEC. Coutteau says this becomes especially useful when testing an engine/powertrain combination under the same kinds of conditions found in the field.

“We can put it through its paces in terms of the load on the engine or the transmission,” Coutteau explains. “We can simulate a grade, which places more stress on systems. We can work with our counterparts and put it through a full-motion simulation, so we can connect GSPEL’s Power and Energy Vehicle Environmental Lab to our full-motion simulators, so we can leverage each other’s capabilities.” Such collaborative testing, he explains, allows for a new level of vehicle evaluation that is “repeatable, exact; we can crunch that data and get that analysis, and then do those changes as needed.”

A palletized loading system with multiple axles currently is being tested at GSPEL, Coutteau says. Describing the tests underway on the vehicle, he explains, “We have it hooked up to the various dynamometers, and we can exercise it through its drive cycle. We are trying to validate its performance, especially perfecting the suspension and drivelines.”

Coutteau also notes that GSPEL gives his staff the ability to test fuel cells more thoroughly. Fuel cells are an energy technology that produces a continuous stream of electrical energy by oxidizing another chemical, such as oxygen or hydrogen. While the principle behind fuel cells has been known for some time, their practical and widespread application has been held back by limits to known chemical processes and material science.

Robots largely operate off batteries, so more efficient fuel-cell technology could improve their duration and range. A small robot that was used to carry a package of communications gear recently was tested at GSPEL.

The fuel cell developed for the test allowed the robot to perform its mission over eight hours, as opposed to the traditional operational limit of two hours for standard batteries.

It is no coincidence that GSPEL is located in Michigan, and in the same neighborhood as many of the top U.S. automotive and truck manufacturers. For years, TARDEC has worked closely with domestic vehicle makers, and Hitchcock says GSPEL is designed to do that as well.

“Collaboration is vital to everything we do, and we are encouraging industry and academia to use the new GSPEL facility,” Coutteau explains. “There are many opportunities for dual-use technology especially in the area of power and mobility. By working closely,” he says, “we hope to speed up the development of emerging technologies and drive down the costs.”

Army Opens New Lab:


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