DARPA is developing a real silent submarine similar to 'Red October'

Under the Principles of Undersea Magnetohydrodynamic Pumps program, PUMP for short, DARPA is developing a silent submarine propulsion system.
Christopher McFadden
'Red October' was a fictional Soviet-era Typhoon-class submarine.

Bellona Foundation/Wikimedia Commons 

The United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has intended to develop a "silent" underwater submarine propulsion system. Seemingly inspired by the 1990s film "The Hunt for Red October," the new propulsion system will have no moving parts and provide thrust using electromagnets and water. Based on a concept called magnetohydrodynamics (MHD), the system is relatively simple but could prove revolutionary for future submarines.

Silent running

First proposed in the 1950s, MHD has been the subject of interest of naval engineers for many decades. This very concept is the inspiration for the fictional submarine in "Hunt for Red October." In an MHD drive, explains New Atlas, a fluid is charged and accelerated by an electromagnetic field to generate thrust. The device has no moving parts, making it very silent. Therefore, submarines would greatly benefit from a stealth drive, allowing them to remain hidden from hunters and improving surveillance and intelligence gathering by removing audio interference from sonar data.

The reason why this technology hasn't been used in submarines for over 60 years, except in a couple of experimental surface boats, is twofold. Firstly, the electromagnetic coils must be extremely powerful, and making ones that are light and efficient enough for submarine installation is challenging. Secondly, the electrodes must withstand a lot of wear due to corrosion, hydrolysis, and erosion caused by the interaction between the magnetic fields, electrical current, and saltwater.

In recent years, there have been significant advancements in magnet development. However, there is still room for improvement in finding the right materials for creating electrodes. To address this issue, DARPA has launched a 42-month program called "Principles of Undersea Magnetohydrodynamic Pumps" (PUMP) that will utilize multiple approaches to develop a practical military MHD drive.

"The best efficiency demonstrated in a magnetohydrodynamic drive to date was 1992 on the Yamato-1, a 30-m (100-ft) vessel that achieved 6.6 knots with an efficiency of around 30% using a magnetic field strength of approximately 4 Tesla," Susan Swithenbank, PUMP program manager in DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office, told New Atlas.

“In the last couple of years, the commercial fusion industry has made advances in Rare-Earth Barium Copper Oxide (REBCO) magnets that have demonstrated large-scale magnetic fields as high as 20 Tesla that could potentially yield 90% efficiency in a magnetohydrodynamic drive, which is worth pursuing. Now that the glass ceiling in high magnetic field generation has been broken, PUMP aims to achieve a breakthrough to solve the electrode materials challenge," she added.

Collaboration is key

In the case of electrodes, gas bubbles form over surfaces, reducing efficiency and collapsing to damage electrodes. Computer models can adjust hydrodynamics, electrochemistry, and magnetics to decrease damage and boost efficiency.

"We’re hoping to leverage insights into novel material coatings from the fuel cell and battery industries since they deal with the same bubble generation problem," said Swithenbank. “We’re looking for expertise across all fields to form teams to help us finally realize a militarily relevant scale magnetohydrodynamic drive," she added.

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