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Meet the Former Navy SEAL Saving Lives -- by Saving Energy -- on the Battlefield

Armed with degrees from MIT and Harvard, Special Ops vet Doug Moorehead is engineering hybrid generators to bring down the costs of war.

Doug Moorehead remembers the exact moment senior Marine Corps officials rendered their verdict. In the summer of 2010, soldiers being trained near the desert town of Twentynine Palms, Calif., had been testing a hybrid generator system — a system Moorehead himself had helped engineer to power everything an off-the-grid military outpost needs. Out on the scorched Mojave Desert, home to the hottest temperature ever recorded, the devices — made up of a diesel generator equipped with solar panels, a high-tech battery and automation software — sucked up energy from the sun and stored the excess. As a result, the generator systems used diesel fuel for only a few hours each day, rather than 24/7.

Flash forward several months. Moorehead, a Navy vet and the president of Earl Energy, a startup based in Virginia Beach, Va., was at the Pentagon to discuss the results. He had just finished presenting the data that the military had collected during the tests when the senior official across the table said the line that still sticks in his mind to this day: “It’s almost too good to be true, Doug.”

If the device Moorehead had helped develop after retiring from SEAL Team Two was unbelievable —  indeed, it reduced fuel consumption by a whopping 70 percent — it was in part because the military’s setup had been in need of an overhaul for quite some time.

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mohaveThe Mojave Desert, a scorching hot area used by the Marine Corps for training. Thinkstock

But Moorehead was the right man to revamp the system. At the United States Naval Academy, he found he loved the problem-solving aspects of science and technology, and says he could have been happy studying everything from physics to electrical engineering. “Unfortunately you can’t be an undergrad for 25 years, you have to pick one,” he says. He chose chemistry. Then he trained as a SEAL pilot navigator, spending three years working with battery-powered submarines, traveling 40-plus miles underwater at a go on top-secret work in places like the Pacific and the South China Sea. Those subs’ rechargeable batteries did not last long, he recalls. He applied to grad school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to work on building better ones.

There he joined forces with Yet-Ming Chiang, a professor of materials science and engineering, who encouraged him to try for something big in his research, rather than an incremental advance. Moorehead worked on coming up with a way to make self-assembling, rechargeable batteries: mix the right set of chemicals together, the idea went, apply them to a surface, then just add heat and watch the components arrange themselves. Going big paid off. By the time he finished his master’s degree, Moorehead was riding his bike across the Charles River several days a week to help train employees at the startup company A123 Systems in Waltham, Mass., which had licensed his technology from MIT.

Then it was back to the battlefield, in summer 2005. He trained soldiers in the Philippines and Colombia, and fought in Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. After nine years in the Navy, he headed to Harvard for an MBA and went to work at A123. In 2009 he ran into a former Naval Academy classmate, Josh Prueher (at a string of weddings, Prueher recalls), and heard about Prueher’s new company, Earl Energy.

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Fuel is enormously costly on the battlefield, both monetarily and in terms of the lives lost when fuel convoys are attacked. An Army Environmental Policy Institute study found that between 2003 and 2007, one military fuel convoy in 24 was attacked and resulted in a casualty, either injury or death, and that 1 in 8 Army casualties in Iraq during that period occurred while defending such convoys. “I recognized that fuel and maintenance and spare-parts logistics on the battlefield was a critical vulnerability,” Prueher says. Moorehead knew this issue well: “We spent a lot of time as special forces, providing security for the movement of necessities around Iraq — fuel, water, food,” he recalls. And he knew that with his knowledge of batteries, he could help.

Earl-Energy-1Photo courtesy of Earl Energy.

The generator system they eventually produced is surprisingly simple. Normally, a military generator runs on diesel fuel all day long, and it uses enough fuel to power everything attached to it, should the need arise. But often the need doesn’t arise — and that’s wasted energy. Moorehead likens it to turning your car on, driving it to work, leaving it running all day, driving home from work, parking it in your garage — then letting it run all night.

With Earl Energy’s system, the generator only needs to run a few hours, at the level at which it has the greatest fuel efficiency. The excess energy is saved in the battery, along with any solar energy that might be available. Automation software switches the generator off when it’s not needed and power is drawn from the battery, until it’s time to recharge again. It’s not complicated, but it is the change the military needed. “The technology is evolutionary, but the concept and its impact are really interesting,” says Capt. Frank Furman, U.S. Marine Corps, logistics program manager in the Office of Naval Research’s Expeditionary Maneuver Warfare and Combating Terrorism Department.

DON’T MISS: How This Navy SEAL Uses His War Wounds to Help Other Soliders

“If we want to fly a helicopter from point A, we need to get fuel to point A,” Furman continues. “That largely involves fuel convoys, which is why our enemies have relied on the IED as its primary weapon. That tactic is a reaction to our reliance on this specific form of energy. … We’ve been living it in Iraq and Afghanistan. With the cost of fuel rising and the costs of alternative energy generation — such as solar — falling, the economics of investment begin to make more sense.”

Earl-Energy-2Doug Moorehead. Photo courtesy of Earl Energy.

Moorehead’s technical savvy and on-the-ground experience led him to that panel at the Pentagon, where the numbers proved that Earl Energy’s generator system could perform above expectations. In addition to reducing fuel consumption 70 percent, it decreased the amount of time the diesel generators had to run by 80 percent. The Marine Corps bought two units, and dispatched them to Afghanistan for 18 months to be tested in a demanding combat situation. The hybrid generator passed with flying colors: Fuel consumption dropped 52 percent and generator run time declined by 80 percent. Ten Earl Energy generator systems are currently being used by the military around the world.

Now Moorehead and the rest of Earl Energy are working with defense contractors to incorporate the technology into products to be provided to the military. They are also developing new versions that run on natural gas and can be used in oil and gas prospecting. “We have ambitions that this technology could really change the way every single generator in the world operates,” Prueher says. “Not just the military.”

This is the first story in a series about former Navy SEALS who have gone on to serve the country in other fields, from business and government to social innovation and military affairs.

MORE: An Innovative Idea to Help Veterans and the Environment at the Same Time

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Veronique Greenwood is a writer based in Switzerland. She's written for The New York Times Magazine, Time and Scientific American, among other publications.

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