For years now, the US Navy has been raising alarms over the impact of continued petroleum dependency on national security, and now it looks like the oil-soaked chickens have come home to roost. According to an article last week by the Office of Naval Research, the Navy’s new laser weapons system (LaWS) makes a stem-to-stern overhaul of the way that warships deploy energy a matter of top priority. Quite simply, LaWS and other new systems suck up massive amounts of electricity, making the transition to future power an imperative.
The article also performs a spirited plug for foundational research, which in our view counts as a direct pushback on certain members of Congress who seek to undercut the credibility and usefulness of federally funded scientific investigation.
Innovation And Petroleum Dependency
Just the other day we were noticing that the petroleum industry has become a distinct liability to car manufacturers, which are racing to leverage renewable energy and electric vehicles as the pathway to a new generation of lifestyle-connected automotive innovation, to say nothing of profits.
Substitute ships for homes and an agile national defense for profits, and there you have the Navy’s position in a nutshell.
Whether the oil is coming from an unfriendly nation overseas or from right here in our own backyard, the end result is the same: it’s the 21st century and petroleum is the wrong fuel at the wrong time.
Laser Weapons And The New All-Electric Navy
The recent article from the Office of Naval Research is titled “Lasers Bring New Urgency to Electric Power Research,” and that pretty much sums up the issue.
The article notes that just last month the Navy announced that LaWS will get a tryout on the USS Ponce in the Persian Gulf next year, which will be its first go on a deployed ship. In other words, the horses are already heading out of the barn, and the Navy can’t let its electrical systems research fall behind:
“As the technology advances, and faced with rising and unpredictable fossil fuel costs, the Navy’s next-generation surface combatant ship will leverage electric ship technologies in its design. While electric ships already exist, design characteristics of a combatant ship are more complex with regard to weight, speed, maneuverability—and now, directed energy weapons.”
According to the article, a key difference between current technology and the electric ships of the future will be the use of materials that permit onboard energy systems to operate with a lighter, more energy efficient footprint.
One promising pathway of research in that direction is the use of silicon carbide for transistors, transformers and power converters. The result would be a savings in size and weight by up to 90 percent, while improving power quality and agility.
Research, Research, Research
If the LaWS deployment underscores the urgency of keeping power systems research on track, it also demonstrates the imperative of grooming a steady supply of trained professionals and innovators to conduct that research.
With that in mind, the article notes that the Navy sponsors a network of eight universities in a long term effort called the Electric Ship Research and Development Consortium.
Back in 2006 (Bush Administration, for those of you keeping score at home), the Office of Naval Research also provided a fresh shot of funding for a 1990’s-era project to develop a forward-looking program for electric energy systems education at American universities.
The curriculum is supported by the Consortium of Universities for Sustainable Power (CUSP), spearheaded by the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.
CUSP now includes more than 100 universities, but apparently interest in the program began to wane in recent years, possibly because it was overshadowed by the draw of a career in digital technology.
However, the growing interest in sustainable energy at the university level has given CUSP a new opportunity to attract fresh brainpower.
As described in another ONR article, a few weeks ago the agency hosted a workshop to hash out a new iteration of the curriculum that bears directly on the Navy’s renewable energy mission:
“Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus has used a set of aggressive goals to guide the service toward renewable power as well as electric ships and weapons. The new curriculum—which covers everything from power systems and electric drives to wind energy and electric grids—takes into account global trends in sustainability and renewable energy.”
Combine electrical systems research with the Navy’s aggressive pursuit of cutting edge biofuel research projects, and you’ve got the foundation for a sea change in the way that the Navy deploys energy, with little room for petroleum products in the picture.
The mockery of cherry-picked research projects with funny names is just one minor manifestation of a concerted effort to undermine federally funded scientific research, which has blossomed into full fruit among legislators who refuse to accept the science of climate change, Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) being one example.
To be fair, last year Ryan singled out national defense as the one area in which research should continue apace. However given the Department of Defense’s recent Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap, it would seem that Mr. Ryan must also support the foundational research that underpins DoD’s threat assessment, even though that is fundamentally opposed to his climate change denial position.
Still waiting on clarification for that (cue the crickets).
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