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UK and France join forces in £19m electric ship project
Published:  01 August, 2000

UK and France join forces in £19m electric ship project

The British and French governments are sharing the £19m cost of a project aimed at developing electric propulsion technologies for the next generation of warships and submarines.

The governments have awarded Alstom Power Conversion of Rugby a contract to design, build and operate a representative electric ship system. As part of the Electric Ship Technology Demonstrator (ESTD) programme, Alstom will recreate the operation of an electrically propelled warship.

Two key components to be tested are a 20MW motor and a 21MW gas turbine. Other items in the project include a smaller (4-8MW) gas turbine, two forms of energy storage (the details of which have not been released), power converters, and a four-quadrant load. There will be separate medium and low voltage distribution systems linked by converters.

Contracts for the motor and main gas turbine have been awarded separately from the ESTD contract, with the contract to supply the motor also going to Alstom.

Electric propulsion has many potential benefits over existing diesel and gas turbine technologies. For example, the ship can be powered by fewer, more efficient engines, leading to a lower initial price and to reduced fuel, operating and maintenance costs.

Also, large machinery spaces and long drive shafts will no longer be needed, allowing more space for accommodation and weapon systems. Big, noisy gearboxes will also be eliminated, making the ships more stealthy.

"The introduction of electric ship propulsion may be as significant as the change from oil to steam," predicts defence procurement minister Baroness Symons. "It could mean the warships and submarines of the future would be more effective, would be better places for their crews to live and work on, and would be built and operated at a lower cost to the taxpayer."

The system being developed by Alstom uses gas turbine generators as a single source of power for the large motors that propel the ship and for other electrical loads on the vessel.

Testing is scheduled to start early in 2002 at Alstom`s Whetstone research centre, near Leicester, which is being enlarged to accommodate the Demonstrator. The test programme is due to be completed by the end of 2003. Paul Norton, Alstom`s business manager for naval systems, says that some of the components could be in use on ships within a year or two of that date.

If the technology proves effective, it could power the Royal Navy`s next-generation warship, two planned aircraft carriers, and an attack submarine. The potential savings could amount to £1bn.

The results of the ESTD programme will be used to compare electric propulsion with other technologies. Baroness Symons warns that if the prime contractors for these vessels wish to use an alternative form of propulsion, "they will have to demonstrate that their proposal is better".

The Anglo-French initiative follows a similar programme announced earlier this year by the US Navy which is planning to build 32 electrically-powered destroyers at an predicted cost of $25bn. Norton says that the Anglo-French approach will differ from the American system, both in terms of its technology, and the fact that the European system will be designed for use in smaller vessels.

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