New fuel cells for submarines: Fourth generation of high-tech propulsion

Engineering | innovation | Fuel cells are seen as a great hope when it comes to efficient propulsion technologies for the future. The idea behind them is already around 180 years old - but today they are used primarily in modern submarines. To make submarines cheaper, more powerful and efficient in the future, the marine specialists at thyssenkrupp are currently working on the fourth generation of fuel cells. This is to be used as standard equipment from next year.

Fuel cells have been used on submarines since the beginning of the millennium. At the beginning, however, this was done in secret, as market demand was rather subdued in the first few years. The research of our naval experts developed accordingly. We learn this from one of the main people responsible for the project: “At that time there was no market. Today it is different. And we want to participate in this market with new developments.” Since research in this area is subject to strong security regulations, we do not mention the responsible staff members by name in this article.

New standards in development and effectiveness

In discussions with the person responsible for technology and development, it becomes clear what opportunities lie in the further development of the fuel cell. The new generation also shows this. According to the expert, the new generation sets new standards in further development and effectiveness: “Our new fuel cell has a modular design. It is also easier to maintain – if something should happen, the crew can repair it directly on site and with simple means”.

Formerly large and heavy, today small and light

In the past, fuel cells were extremely large and heavy. Today’s systems are smaller and lighter. The new fuel cell is also cheaper, better performing and more efficient and enables submarines, among other things, to remain under water for longer. And this is precisely one of the most important requirements for a modern submarine.

However, the road to actual use is paved with numerous test phases. The entire system has now been tested in Kiel for two months – with very good results so far, according to one of the team’s experts: “We simulate under real conditions – for example, in inclined positions and with different loads and requirements on board a submarine“.

Special requirements for safety under water

Of course, there are very special safety requirements for use kilometers deep under water. In the event of a fire or explosion, for example, the crew cannot simply flee. Safety on board must therefore be guaranteed down to a minimum residual risk – and thus becomes a central issue in development. “There is a closed atmosphere on board a submarine,” the expert explains. “Security technology is crucial in this respect.” Fortunately, the numerous preliminary tests have so far shown consistently positive results – a big step on the way to the finished product.

The fourth generation – soon to go into series production

The complete drive system comes completely from our hand. This makes after-sales support easier, in particular, as we can respond more quickly to inquiries. Not only for us a relief. It is also a great advantage for the customer, because he no longer has to coordinate with several companies. This saves costs and increases the availability of the drive system.

At the moment the last tests are underway. From 2020, the new fuel cell should then be available to customers – and then also form part of the basic configuration for our fuel cells in submarines.

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