General Atomics to Build a Prototype for Hybrid-Electric Prius of the Seas

Saving money on fuel by developing new types of hybrid engines is not just the pursuit of automakers any more. Under a government contract awarded earlier this week, San Diego’s General Atomics is developing a new hybrid electric drive system for a U.S. Navy warship.

“I think it has huge potential,” says Carl Fisher, who heads business development at General Atomics’ Electromagnetic Systems Division. Under the $32.7 million contract, the privately held San Diego defense contractor will develop and install a prototype hybrid electric drive system in an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, the 509-foot guided-missile destroyer with a crew of 276.

A guided-missile destroyer

A guided-missile destroyer

The destroyers are powered by four General Electric gas turbines capable of powering the ship at speeds in excess of 30 knots (about 35 mph). GA’s concept would basically convert the Navy’s modern man of war into a hybrid-electric Prius of the seas.

“Obviously, there are differences,” Fisher says, “but the analogy is consistent.” According to the GA executive, the Navy contract calls for integrating a prototype electric motor with the warship’s reduction gears, enabling the destroyer to use its electric motor for low-speed operations below 10 or 12 knots (about 14 mph). In a notice Wednesday, the Pentagon says the five-year contract awarded by the Naval Sea Systems Command is intended to demonstrate significant fuel savings by incorporating advanced electric machine technology. The work will be done in San Diego, Milwaukee, WI, and Hudson, MA.

The award is the latest in a series of major contracts the Navy has awarded to General Atomics’ electromagnetic division since 2004. Those contracts include:

—Development of the Navy’s first electromagnetic aircraft launcher, designed to replace the steam-powered catapults now used aboard U.S. aircraft carriers.

—Development of advanced arresting gear to snag landing aircraft, replacing hydraulic landing systems.

— Design of a Naval deck gun that uses electromagnetism instead of explosives to fire a projectile. Also known as a rail gun, the system is expected to lob a 31-pound shell almost 288 miles at Mach 7.5, farther and faster than any existing Naval artillery.

—Design of a 36.5-megawatt superconducting DC electric motor for ship propulsion. GA’s Fisher told me the hybrid motor contract announced this week is unrelated to GA’s development of a superconducting DC electric motor under a contract the Office of Naval Research awarded in 2005. The DC electric motor was conceived for the DD(X), a next-generation destroyer.

Steve Schreppler, program officer for electric ship propulsion systems at the Office of Naval Research, told me in 2005 that the move to electric power systems makes it easier for a ship to share power among its propulsion, service, and combat systems. If innovations in electric power and electromagnetic technologies enabled ships to use half as much power, that would be a big deal for the Navy, Schreppler said at the time.

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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