Navy Unveils Electrical Power ‘Road Map’

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The U.S. Navy wants to improve its ability to store, generate and surge electricity on ships to accommodate exponentially increasing demand for power, service officials said.

The rise is driven in a large part by the advent of lasers, electromagnetic rail guns and computing technologies on vessels today.

Naval Sea Systems Command recently released a planning document, “Naval Power Systems Technology Development Roadmap,” which calls for new research to identify ways to generate and store power on ships, according to Dr. Timothy McCoy, director of the Electric Ships Office.

McCoy and other Navy experts examined the evolution of the need for electrical power at sea, comparing it to the growth of ship size, or  “displacement,” over the past century. They found exponential growth in the level of ship-borne and generated electricity.

“If you go back to the very first destroyer, we were putting electric plants on that which were 3 to 4 kilowatts in rating,” McCoy said in an interview with Military.com. “Today, our DDGs have 9,000 kilowatts on board and the DDG 1000 has 78,000 kilowatts on board. The rating of the power plant has grown exponentially, and the size of the ships has also grown. However, the percentage of the ship that is electric power producing or involved in electric power distribution is growing in relation to everything else. Electric power is getting more and more important on ships.”

On-board power and electricity is needed to support systems such as communications devices, lighting, sonar, radar and weapons, McCoy said. Electric motors are also a key component of alternative propulsion technologies such as the hybrid-electric drive auxiliary propulsion system — which powers several Navy ships such as the USS Makin Island Amphibious Assault Ship and others in development such as the USS America and USS Tripoli.

The so-called road map is intended to inspire collaboration within academia, the Defense Department and the Navy, and to identify some of the methods needed to better integrate electrical systems onto ships now and into the future, McCoy said.

For instance, while the Navy is already deploying everything from solid-state laser weapons and electromagnetic rail guns to high-tech sensors and radar systems, the service expects more of these technologies will be used in the future.

“The far-term involves additional uncertainty, but it is expected that additional directed-energy weapons requiring even more power will become available as well as higher-powered sensors and rail guns of increasing size and capability,” the document states. “It is likely that Navy platforms will operate these systems simultaneously.”

The paper is designed to establish a common approach to developing and introducing electric power systems across various types of Navy ships, McCoy said.

“Given historical technology development cycles and insertion time periods, now is the time to plan and take action required to support future naval power systems and capabilities to influence technology developments in future ships,” he said.

As a result, the document makes a handful of recommendations designed to address these challenges, including the development of an energy “magazine” technology to provide intense bursts of power when needed for weapons such as lasers and rail guns.

“The idea is to store some energy in electrical form – maybe in capacitors,” McCoy said. “We will have some sort of electrical energy stored on the ship so that when these weapons say, ‘I need to go from zero to a megawatt and I need to do it now,’ we can. When it is done, we need to go back down to zero or almost zero.”

Capacitors are able to store an electric field between two conducting plates with an insulator between them, he said.

A promising technology are high-voltage, high-temperature semi-conductors that use silicon carbide — compounds of silicon and carbide blended together forming a crystalline lattice that is able to operate at higher temperatures and switch electrical charges faster, McCoy said.

“Silicon carbide is a different physical material and it has different physical properties,” he said. “One of those is called wide band gap – that is just the amount of excitation it takes to move an electron from one state to an excited state. These wide band gap materials can operate at higher temperatures.

“Semi-conductors are called semi-conductors for a reason,” he added. “When you put electricity through them you have a fair amount of losses that turn into heat. Wide-band gap materials like silicon carbide are pretty promising. What we see with these is a way to revolutionize the power and electronics industry.”

About the Author

Kris Osborn
Kris Osborn is the managing editor of Scout Warrior.
  • USS ENTERPRISE

    Nuclear Reactor.

    • EW3

      Exactly !

      We keep ignoring the best solution because it is not PC.
      (NYC had banned nuclear powered vessels from coming into port for Fleet Week)

      • SJE

        Enough with the phantom boogey men. Nuclear is expensive and complicated and so regular hydrocarbon fuel is a reasonable decision for many ships. Even on most nuclear ships you still need auxilliary turbines to provide additional power.

      • Chuck

        The NYC ban is urban myth. Never happened. In fact, Bloomberg has explicitly stated that we’d happily host any naval ship the USN wants to send (which he said as a specific response to those rumors).

        • USS ENTERPRISE

          Yeah, true. But I don’t think that the Nimitz can sail around New York Harbor; be a sight to see, though.

    • hibeam

      Windmills are nuclear powered. Wind comes from the sun. The faster the ship goes the more power you get from the windmills on the deck.

      • USS ENTERPRISE

        Well then, a solar-powered car runs off nuclear power as well, don’t they? Cause, you know, the sun has fusion going on. (Obviously, duh!)

    • SJE

      Yep. Navy needs to work on next gen reactors with smaller size, better efficiency and safety. Part of the reason we don’t use reactors more widely is that they are very expensive to operate (fueling, expertize in the crew, etc). If we can get small modular reactors with improved passive safety, we can put them in more ships for less $.

    • Jeff Burns

      The Turbo Electric ships like the USS Tennesee and Colorado class BB’s and USS Lexington class CV’s had more eletrical generation capacity than the current Nuke carriers which are conventional ships in all respect except for not burning oil for fuel. They still have the same engines as the Forrestal class. For the new weapons, we need pure electric drive ships again like we had at the end of WW1. Then there is plenty of electricity for new weapons.
      link for where the Lex supplied power to Tacoma WA back in 1929. You can’t do that with a modern Capital Ship. http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=

      • WulfTheSaxon

        Uhm, what? The Colorado class had under 22 MWe and Lexington well under 40 MWe, whereas the Nimitz and Ford classes have hundreds and hundreds.

    • Anonymous

      eat shit

  • blight_

    Curious, how is the Navy generating power on ships today?

    Before electricity, combustion was used to do mechanical work that eventually turned a propellor shaft. Eventually, the mechanical work was coupled to alternators to generate electricity. And now, “hybrid-electric” on ships does away with mechanical coupling of an engine to a propellor, and instead directly converts all mechanical work to electricity, and uses that in turn to power everything on a ship. You can use two engines if you like (gas-turbine and diesel), and throw in some batteries if you are generating more electricity than you can use.

    More specifically than the general term “electrical roadmap” is one of the forks, relating to the support of railguns. You need high voltage, but not for long, so this allows for the use of a capacitor to provide your energy needs (as article states).

    The Navy is interested in capacitors, but capacitors leak charge. Conceivably, a ship carrying multiple super-capacitors in parallel and connecting capacitors to a railgun as needed (connect-to-fire, disconnect, connect-different-capacitor-to-fire…) might be safer than a ship carrying large banks of lithium-ion batteries. You’d have to do a survivability study to confirm.

    • USS ENTERPRISE

      Nuclear.

    • EW3

      Leakage in caps is largely a function of the quality of the cap (dielectric).
      Also, lower voltage caps tend to leak less due to the same issue.

      I’m a big fan of super caps, have used them in designs. But I’m not sure about these in this situation. They have come a long way, and I think nanotechnology will likely improve energy density.

      Another option is mechanical systems. Have not done the math but some could have potential. For example, between firings you use the normal power to either spin up a flywheel or store energy in compressed air. Just before firing you unleash the potential energy into a generator that supplements normal ship power to fire the weapon.

  • hibeam

    Does the Commander in Golf know they are not putting windmills on Navy ships? He will not be happy.

  • Musson

    On Boneyards this morning they showed several WWII era steam turbines that were removed from Battleships and Cruisers. They were being refitted to run off of geothermal steam. The said that one Battleship turbine could generate up to 20 Megawatts.

  • gtry

    Is the issue with these new systems overall power output or the way in which those systems use electricity in terms of watts and amps?

  • RunningBear

    Arleigh Burke DDG-51; Three Gas Turbine Generator Sets (GTGS) is rated at 2500 KW and supplies 450 VAC, three-phase, 60 HZ power… Each GTGS is comprised of an Allison 501-K34 Gas Turbine Engine, a module assembly, a reduction gear assembly, and a generator.

  • Mitch S.

    I’d expect a lot of work was done in this area during development of the EMALS
    (electro-magnetic catapult).
    I understand it uses flywheels for energy storage.

    • Cosmoskitten

      EMALS is quite nice, since it is both a handy thing for the US Navy, and good basic technology.

  • Ken Badoian

    Wait a minute…the comment about the BIG APPLE, nanny city, banning nuclear powered ships from fleet week. What goes, Bloombug and company, do not own the oceans and rivers. If this is true pull Fleet Week out of the BIG APPLE and send over to the NJ side.
    MMCS(SW)(SS) USN Ret.

    • Chuck

      Calm down. The NYC ban is urban myth. It never happened. When he heard it reported, Bloomberg responded by explicitly stating that we would happily host any ship the USN wanted to send.

  • Tim D.

    Hey Ken, if you have a problem with a stupid policy from a bunch of dumb politicians fine go ahead, but leave New York City out of it. It never amazes me how every terrorist, country (friend or foe) realizes how important New York is to the economic strength of the country but half the country wants to pretend New York is useless.

    • blight_

      Considering that critical elements of financial sector infrastructure are backed up offsite, a direct attack on NY won’t lead to direct economic collapse.

      • SJE

        Yes, the computers that run the NYC financial system are backed up and are, IIRC, currently run in NJ. However, the NYC financial system is far more than computers, its people. Trading is one thing, but deals, intelligence, etc, require people.

        • blight_

          Indeed. What kind of attack are we thinking of? If it’s a cyberattack that hits the exchanges in NYC, the people are still alive and work offsite backups. If it’s a physical attack and people are dead, you’d have to bootstrap from regional offices elsewhere plus the survivors who were on vacation/on business/telecommuters.

    • USS ENTERPRISE

      They got Wall Street. Which Americans don’t understand.

  • brownie

    DDG 1000 canceled after 3 ships….amazing…our politicians are amazingly narrow minded.

    • USS ENTERPRISE

      Well, I mean, did you hear about the F-22, B-2, F-35, insert any other military project you want?

  • rty

    NASA recently developed a trashcan sized nuclear reactor, it only produces 120KW at the moment, but it could provide the boost the navy is looking for.