“Pay Attention to the Power”: An Interview with Dr. Rich Carlin


Future Force sat down to discuss power and energy issues with Dr. Rich Carlin, head of the Office of Naval Research’s (ONR) Sea Warfare and Weapons Department.

Q: I wonder if you could talk briefly about ONR’s interests in power and energy. Why is this issue so important for our Sailors and Marines?

A:Energy and power technology is one of the key focus areas here at ONR, so we’ve had significant investments ongoing and very long term, looking at a broad range of areas—everything from support for our Marine Corps to our ship systems, aircraft systems, and, as of late, a lot of work in the unmanned systems area. So it impacts pretty much everything the warfighter needs, in terms of their capability to go forward.

Also, it’s a very high priority within the secretariat, particularly Secretary [of the Navy Ray] Mabus, who has really pushed this forward himself as one of his key areas of interest—with the understanding that it provides critical capability to the warfighter.

Q: As head of the Sea Warfare and Weapons Department, what are some of the power and energy challenges that concern you, and where do you see opportunities?

A: We’ve had a lot of power and energy investments over the years, and many of those technologies have certainly matured, to the point where we are seeing opportunities now in our ability to start incorporating more advanced technologies into our platforms. That doesn’t mean we’re going to stop our basic research in power and energy—we’re always going to be pushing basic research, technology, and science forward—but when we start looking at the platforms, there’s a very strong pull again to move forward and apply the lessons learned, particularly on the electric ship. So many of those capabilities have come along tremendously, and we have some new things that will be coming available very soon.

So now we think that the real challenge at this stage is: How do we start putting all these systems, all this advanced technology, together in a truly working, operating system? We do a lot of work on hardware-in-the-loop, which reduces the costs of development, but now we’re looking at it to truly put it into test platforms, integrated—and not just the power system itself. The real challenge here is going to be taking a look at how that power system effectively integrates with the weapon systems now. I think people are very aware of the great work ONR has been doing in directed-energy systems, high-power radar systems, railgun, lasers. All these new technologies that are coming forward, well, they need that power. Now it’s time to bring those things together, and I think that’s really where our challenge is: to prove out that these things can work together very effectively.

Q: Could you talk a little bit more about your department’s efforts as they relate to the electric ship?

A: Sure. With the standard ship design, you have the main propulsion system with a mechanical drive. And there you’re talking tens of megawatts of power. When you start looking at the service/auxiliary power capability that ships will have, with all of these high-power systems, the electric power demand is driving to the point now where to provide the electrical power that’s necessary, you’re either going to have to install a lot more ship service/auxiliary generating capacity, or you’re going to have to work it so that the main propulsion plant’s power can be directed to the overall electric power system.

And so that’s what leads us, what really drives us to say, “How can we integrate all of our power sources into an electrical system that can provide any power, the high-quality power, and pulse power that are necessary to provide all that full capability to the ship?” That’s basically what you’re looking at. Think about electric cars. The best example is the hybrid propulsion type systems you see in cars where you have that engine, but think of that as charging the battery, and the car then runs off that battery—you no longer have mechanical drive, you no longer have that transmission. What you have instead is just the flow of electricity throughout the car. Over the years, they’ve been doing a really good job of developing high-density magnet systems for the electro-mechanical drives that are necessary for cars. That’s been a big enabler for them. We’ll be doing the same kind of thing. Over the years we have developed very powerful motors for ships.


Q: Orders of magnitude greater than a smart car on I-95.

A: Yeah, just a little bit! You know, with fuel cell cars we talk about 100 kilowatts. So here you’re going to go, let’s say 100 to 1,000 times more.

Q: Could you talk a little bit about the Sea Warfare and Weapons Department’s work and interest in power and energy as it relates to unmanned systems?

A: In terms of my department in particular, we come at unmanned systems power from a couple of directions. One, we’ve had a long-term program with the undersea platforms—torpedoes but also autonomous underwater vehicles. In that case, we’ve typically been driven by the platform, and by the constraints the platform is going to provide for us. So, 21 inches is the typical diameter that they talk about with that, and that’s really constrained how we can get enough energy and power into the platforms. The Large-Displacement Unmanned Underwater Vehicle opened us up quite a bit and allowed us to continue to really expand on that. So we’ve been primarily looking at fuel cells because they have the energy density that’s necessary and then designing these particular fuel cells to fit into those platforms. We’re designing a power system to fit into a platform.

Another approach that we took a number of years ago: We were working fuel cells, and I was talking to one of our performers at the Naval Research Laboratory and asked if they could put a fuel cell into an unmanned aerial vehicle and demonstrate long endurance on that. They took up that challenge, and in a couple of years they were able to demonstrate, over a day, world-record capability in terms of flight. And now they’ve actually pushed it to two days by changing from gaseous hydrogen to liquid hydrogen. And one of the keys to accomplishing that was rather than designing a fuel cell to fit into the platform, it was designing a platform around that fuel cell. And so when some people talk about this, when you start looking at design space when it comes to electric ship, the Navy’s actually taking this viewpoint: We’re not going to say, “Here’s your space for your power system, now figure out how it fits.” It needs to come from an approach of total ship design, to determine what power system you may need to optimize. Then you can arrange that ship in a manner that allows you to have sufficient power from the outset, and you may make some design changes to that ship, accommodations that allow you to provide power to all of the modern and future weapon systems. That is one thing that’s nice about the electric systems: It’s a break from what they used to call “the tyranny of the shaft.” That is, when you look at a mechanical drive, you have to have a shaft that runs through the bottom of the ship to the propulsor. Well, when you go electric, you get rid of that—so now you don’t have to worry about accounting for that shaft in the ship when you go with electric drive systems—you just have that large motor, which can open up the design space for that ship.

Q: So instead of fixing something post-design, get it right pre-design.

A: Pay attention to the power. There is a tendency, and a lot of people do this, to design a great platform with all that capability built in, and then they say, “Now don’t forget to put the power system in.” So it’s better if we think in terms of how to include those together. And, in fact, the Navy stood up an organization called Combat Power and Energy Systems, which is bringing together the ship design people, the power architecture people, the weapons people, even the acquisition community, the fiscal people, to work on this electric ship taking a fully integrated, holistic approach.

Q: Speaking of people, on the personnel or people front, you have initiatives and several ground-breaking programs supporting the development of personnel as a key to future advances in power and energy and S&T. Could you talk about some of those efforts?

A: Sure. The first one I’ll refer you to is ESTEP, which is the Energy System Technology Evaluation Program. This started actually in fiscal year 2013. It’s a program that was focused on doing demonstrations on facilities. It was something the secretary’s office wanted to have so that we could lead the way in technologies—renewable energy technologies in particular, but overall energy technologies in general, to improve the energy capabilities at bases. How do you make them more efficient, more secure, more capable on the shore side? And as we were putting this together, we realized there was an opportunity here to approach it differently, instead of doing the normal, “Let’s contract this out to one of our standard defense contractors”—who do a great job. But we sometimes miss the opportunity to educate naval personnel or veterans. So we said, “Let’s do this differently and require that those doing the project are naval personnel already on the bases.” So they get directly involved in the execution of that program and it becomes almost like an in-house facilities demonstration program.

In addition, it turned out there was a local school at that time, San Diego State University, near one of our performers, Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command out in San Diego. They had a veteran internship program. So we were able to say, “Hey, why don’t we provide you monies to pay for veteran interns to work on that [ESTEP] project?” And they said, “Absolutely.” And so on each of the projects that we’ve done in our ESTEP program, we’ve had at least one veteran. They’re student veterans, mainly at SDSU, but we are going to look at other schools as well. And those vets have gone through already and in a couple of cases gotten jobs because of this, the establishment of training as an intern.

Q: Would you also please speak about APTEP and Energy Excelerator?

A: We’ve had this program for a while—it has been congressionally supported—called the Asia-Pacific Technology and Education Partnership. It funds everything from K-12 community outreach to university research and even a program called Energy Excelerator, which is an organization run by a non-profit in Hawaii that funds companies to do demonstrations of their energy technologies in the investment community/entrepreneurship type of world. Instead of just funding the technology, it really focuses on making sure those companies get business training. So it’s a professional development type of organization. All of these programs together are working to ensure we foster and support the brightest minds bringing the most innovative technologies to the forefront for our Sailors and Marines in a technological environment that has limitless possibilities.

About Future Force Staff