SecNav Posits Drone Ships Fueled by Sediment

At a breakfast meeting with DC-based defense reporters today, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus (now clearly not in contention to be SecDef) sketched a future force of unmanned ships pulling power from the sea floor.

Office of Naval Research just did a patent on making energy with a combination of seawater and organic material at the bottom of the ocean. If this can work in large quantities, you can see an unmanned vehicle out there simply burrowing down into the bottom of the ocean trying to recharge. … It’s unmanned systems [like that] that offer tremendous versatility and tremendous reach.

The process gets a little more scientific than I’m capable of explaining comfortably, so I’ll let a 2010 news report do it for me. We also invite DT readers who are spooled up on this to explain as well…

These fuel cells convert naturally occurring fuels and oxidants in the marine environment into electricity making them a viable power source for long-term operation of autonomous underwater unmanned vehicles, in-water sensors, and devices used for surveillance and monitoring the ocean environment.

“Think of it as a battery that runs on mud,” ONR Program Manager Dr. Linda Chrisey said. “They are sustainable, environmentally friendly and don’t involve hazardous reactants like a regular battery might because they use the natural carbon in the marine environment. For example, we are working on a 4-foot long autonomous underwater vehicle that will settle on the seafloor and recharge its batteries using this fuel cell approach. We are already able to power many types of sensors using microbial fuel cells.”

While so far the experimentation on this has been essentially charging batteries for buoys or radio monitors, Mabus’ vision conjures up images of robotic ships controlling the world of The Matrix. Imagine unmanned nuclear subs that can derive power from the sea floor on their own?…Clearly some down sides to this kind of robotic warfare.

— Christian

  • PSU Student

    Awesome, I’m a BioChem student that was looking for an ONR internship – Think I just found my application interest.

    • blight

      I sense a future synthetic biologist?

  • Elros

    Maybe Christian was referring to subs equipped with nuclear weapons?

    • Rezer

      Except that’s not the accepted definition of a nuclear submarine. See

      “A nuclear submarine is a submarine powered by a nuclear reactor”

      Kind of defeats the purpose of eating mud…

  • StanleyB

    What kind of damage would this cause to the bottom of the ocean and thing living there? I think that should be a real concern.

  • SJE

    I doubt that this would work in much of the deep ocean, because the mud is essentially stripped of most biologically available energy sources (e.g. carbohydrates, fats, proteins). It might work in littoral areas but, again, the ocean floor is not particularly rich in organic carbon because anything that is there gets consumed by all the organisms that are looking for something to eat.
    Almost all the biological energy in the ocean derives from plankton in the top few meters, with some help from seaweed and other plants that grow in shallow water, and run off from the land. After that, there is great competition to consume and use that energy, leaving almost nothing by the time you get the sea floor. The ocean is basically a giant desert.

  • Will

    A few robotic vehicles aren’t going to do much to the ocean floor compared to all the chemicals, heavy metals, trash & untreated sewage that flows into the oceans daily. Or the over-fishing.

  • Cahlmeeishmael

    Assuming these things end up being relatively cheap to produce, you no longer need to lay mines. All you need do is program these puppies to leave your shore, travel to your enemy’s shore, arm themselves, and go boom at the appropriate time. We might have mines going off randomly in our ports or even traveling up the Mississippi.

    Obviously, we would then need hordes of hunter-killers to seek out and blow the mines.

  • Stephen Russell

    Test on a Manned Nuclear sub with dual Mn engine plants & see which is better, refit a old Trident SSBN for role?
    From UK or US??
    Wow, Must produce for other mini subs alone.

  • Kal-ill

    “naturally occurring fuels and oxidants in the marine environment” (*Gulf of Mexico only)

  • Qwurky1

    so where’s my mud powered car? ;-p

  • blight

    Can’t anger the nuclear sub people by suggesting that their tech is superseded. However, it would require serious advances in metallurgy (or increased cost) if we propose to make this routine in blue-water deep-ocean applications.

  • Qwurky1

    so on top of subnet, now we have to worry about senate? sorry, Sarah Connor but the odds are stacked against u

  • Jorge_Banner

    “environmentally friendly”? I guess that makes us NOT part of the environment. An autonomous robot that runs on mud is the stuff of a Terminator movie. Machines fail all the time. Computers hang ups and glitches come like swamp mosquitoes. How many ships have been sunk by circling torpedoes? And now this? Can we imagine a circling torpedo that runs forever? Add multiple warheads to the mix. Hey, why not?! The time’s coming when somebody is going to make one, single, humongous mistake and human on human troubles are going to be the least of our concerns. At least guns shoot in the direction you are pointing them at.

  • Oblat

    Well I guess we can see now why Mabus didn’t make SecDef with this 14 yro schoolboy stuff.

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