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AFCEC project hopes to land Airmen in 'hot water'

Man stands near rigid metal structure with solar panel system mounted on its side.

Mike Tomac, PhD student at South Dakota School of Mining & Technology, stands near a small-scale K-Span structure used to test the viability of adapting off-the-shelf solar technology to deployable structures for the Air Force at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. (Courtesy Photo)

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. (AFNS) -- The Air Force Civil Engineer Center is embracing innovation and a partnership with the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in an effort to bring off-the-grid electricity and hot water to Airmen in difficult deployments around the world.

Using equipment originally designed to heat residential pools, this project is exploring the possibility of deploying kit-ready solar panels along with a water heating system that could provide both electricity and the valuable commodity of hot water to assembled-in-place structures.

Due to these structures’ unique shape and construction, traditional mounting solutions for solar prove difficult to implement. The 823rd Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers at Hurlburt Field, Florida, constructed two small-scale K-Span buildings onsite at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida to serve as a platform for testing the feasibility of this design.

Currently, once built, these structures are installed on an expeditionary electrical grid, where they serve as command centers, mess halls, maintenance facilities and more. Fuel must be delivered to these remote sites to power them and produce hot water. By introducing this renewable solution to the deployable inventory, it could serve to reduce this dependence on transported fuel.

“Less fuel equals fewer fuel convoys which equals saving troops’ lives,” said Reza Salavani, Air Force Civil Engineer Center energy program manager, requirements and acquisition division.

Mike Tomac is a doctoral student with SDSMT who originally proposed this project as part of his master’s thesis along with professor Dr. David Dixon and former faculty Butch Skillman. The school then brought the proposal to the Air Force, where it was granted funding through an existing contract partnership with AFCEC.

“The most exciting part of this partnership is the ability to apply existing technology in an innovative way for the Air Force,” said Tomac. “Working with the Air Force helped tailor my education and gave me focus on innovation and implementation of projects in a real environment. It brought this applied project to life.”

In addition to Tomac’s work on his master’s degree and PhD, other students have also benefited from the partnership. Another master’s student at SDSMT, Shannon Morse, is using the project for her thesis, and during set-up at Tyndall AFB, two local high school interns from Port St. Joe High School were given an opportunity to participate in the project.

In this project and others like it, the Air Force fosters strong partnerships with academia and encourages innovation around off-the-shelf tech that can find deployable solutions for Airmen and save the government countless dollars.

“Partnerships with academic institutions around the country give the Air Force access to great minds and fresh perspectives,” said Col. Tim Dodge, AFCEC deputy director. “Harvesting the skills, knowledge, and abilities of students and faculty from around the country can ultimately benefit the warfighter downrange.”