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Decade-long quest for multi-fuel power source yields U.S. Army interest

– The U.S. military’s quest to outfit American soldiers with an all-in-one power source could lead to a nondescript office in a Morrisville technology park where Triangle startups toil away in obscurity chasing big dreams.

On a recent weekday morning, Larry Markoski, founder of one of those startups, set out his contraption for a run-through on a strip of sidewalk connecting a parking lot with his office.

That the device is a portable generator is plainly obvious. About as big as a small duffel bag, the mechanism rumbles away, connected to a tangle of cables leading to a battery pack and a portable solar panel.

Then Markoski, founder and president of INI Power, proceeds to list the fuels his little dynamo can burn: gasoline, ethanol, diesel, kerosene, jet fuel, methanol, grain alcohol, rum, paint thinner, hydrogen. Any liquor that’s 151-proof and stronger will do in a pinch.

“If you can put a match to it and it’ll burn, it’ll run in this generator,” Markoski explains. “It’s fuel-agnostic.”

Markoski has finally gotten his big chance to make a believer of his company’s creation. The U.S. Army will test four of INI’s fuel omnivores this year at Ft. Belvoir in Virginia to determine if they’re combat-worthy.

The outcome of the military’s research could lift INI to a new phase, potentially validating the generators for municipal fire departments, police forces and other emergency first responders. The U.S. Army is still in early testing and has no immediate plans to supply soldiers with flex-fuel generators at this time.

The military’s interest is rooted in the armed forces’ increased reliance on electronics and communications in remote and hostile areas, creating a need for a constant source of power. Problem is, in Afghanistan and Iraq “soldiers are often getting fuel from other sources besides the Army’s logistics train,” said Edric Thompson, a spokesman for CEDREC, a research unit within the military based at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

Checking durability

CEDREC – short for Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center – has been experimenting with flex-fuel generators for the past several years and working with several companies on the project. INI’s generators will be tested by the Army’s PEO C3T, short for Program Executive Office Command, Control, Communications-Tactical.

The laboratory tests will assess durability, expected useful life, performance with different fuels, and ability to start and operate in extreme heat and cold, said Cory Goetz, who oversees mobile electric power projects for PEO C3T, in an email.

For INI, the Trinity generator represents a decade-long struggle for a breakthrough. The company has burned through $20 million in private investment and federal grants, Markoski said. For the past three years, the 10-employee business has been “self-funded” and has enough cash to make it to the end of the year, unless product orders start materializing.

INI spent years developing “fuel-agnostic” fuel cells and got as far as a 300-watt model that cost $30,000 to create. Then 10 months ago INI gave up on fuel cells and changed course, applying its years of experience to develop the ultimate flex-fuel generator.

Production potential

INI’s Trinity generators come in 1-kilowatt and 2-kilowatt versions, which is enough power to charge cell phones and run lights, a laptop and a small fridge. The bigger model will recharge a plug-in electric car, Markoski said.

The generators come with backup battery packs and can also generate additional power through a solar panel. Both accessories are included with the Trinity.

INI’s goal is to get the price under $5,000 per unit, achievable with mass production, he said. That would be quite an outlay considering that you can get a low-end generator at a hardware store for a few hundred bucks.

The source of Trinity’s versatility is a trade secret, but Markoski said the trick is in a universal cold start and a vaporizing carburetor. That’s about as much as Markoski will say on the subject.

Richard Cregar, an automotive systems technology instructor at Wilson Community College, said that only in recent years has technology sufficiently advanced to develop combustion engines that can switch fuels.

Cregar had not heard of INI’s product but said it would be the Holy Grail if it lives up to its promise.

“The military has been wanting one of these for a long time,” he said.

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