Superconductors & Nanotech: The Future of Naval Propulsion?
American Superconductor Corporation has received a $1.3 million contract extension for its second generation (2G) high temperature superconductor (HTS) wire from the US Office of Naval Research (ONR), with funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). This is the 6th contract or contract extension received by American Superconductor for 2G HTS wire development over just the last 10 months; the total dollar amount is approximately $8.1 million within that timeframe.
Superconductivity normally works at temperatures close to absolute zero (-459F/ -273C); “high temperature superconductor” wire has the ability to work in conditions you still wouldn’t exactly consider comfortable. Targeted defense applications for 2G HTS wire include ship propulsion electric motors and generators; that area is particularly interesting, and ties into another research effort DID has noticed…
Military.com reports that the USA is also undertaking efforts to develop cryogenically cooled electronics and power generation systems that could help it deal with surging electricity requirements for its all-electric warships, while dropping the size of a typical naval engine (currently, about the size of a semi’s trailer) by half and cutting weight (up to 220 tons) by a third. The University at Albany’s College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering is creating semiconductors for low-temperature functions, and MTECH Laboratories is working on turning them into power inverter modules. Superconducting wires that carry electricity with no resistance are the third requirement. Since all-electric warships are a global trend in advanced militaries, successes in this research area could have fairly profound implications.
Other areas of research using 2G HTS include degaussing cable systems, and non-lethal weapons; AMSC is actively involved in developing components or systems for each of these applications.
DID Op/Ed & Thoughts
Success in this area is also likely to lead to civilian power plants that benefit from their efficiencies; a number of generation plants already use modified jet or ship engine turbines, for instance. Reducing their size significantly and improving the efficiency and total power output could make high-efficiency local generation attractive in a number of new contexts.
Superconductive wire that could actually work at normal daily temperatures would be an even bigger breakthrough; as just one example, it would allow the creation of power distribution lines that radically reduced transmission loss (most electrical power is lost in transit), saving immense amounts of energy and allowing new energy centers (say, large solar farms in New Mexico) to become profitable exporters. That goal is a long, long way off, and it is not the goal of DARPA’s efforts as they do not require such performance.
Nevertheless, DARPA’s efforts are a step in that direction.
In addition, the need for robust military applications that can survive damage to cooling systems or outright breaches will continue to push military research toward superconductivity at more “normal” temperatures – creating a constant, high-priority research pressure toward that far-off goal.
In a world with such an imbalance between long-term energy needs and large-scale options, these preliminary efforts to improve ships’ propulsions are both hopeful and potentially earthshaking. Hence our decision to feature it so prominently in our coverage today.
And if failure should be the end, as often happens in scientific exploration… there will be other avenues, and other inventions, to pursue.