MIT students develop novel energy source for undersea systems

Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) platforms face significant endurance challenges due to the limitations of battery technology. Last year, a group of undergraduates in MIT's Engineering Systems Design course, a capstone course sponsored by Lincoln Beaver Works, dreamed up a novel method to address this problem based on the high energy density of aluminum. By dissolving aluminum into gallium and reacting it with seawater, they found that such a process would produce hydrogen gas and heat at a level that would significantly outperform Li-Ion batteries. Not satisfied with theoretical blackboard equations, the students went on to develop an initial working prototype to demonstrate all the key concept elements.

Students from MIT who developed a power system for an AUV were at Lincoln Lab to present their invention. MIT Engineering Systems Design students with the energy storage unit for underwater vehicles shown in the foreground.

This year, student engineers in two capstone courses, Engineering Systems Design and Engineering Systems Development, pursued this technology breakthrough further, by refining the basic technology and, more excitingly, designing and building a prototype system capable of 86 kWh – such a system would extend the endurance of the current generation of Unmanned Underwater Vehicles from 72 hours to 30 days. 

The system was recently successfully operated in a laboratory setting, a fitting end to their capstone project work. As part of their course "finals" on May 17, students, teachers, mentors, and other interested parties gathered for a demonstration of this technology, which exhibits twenty times the energy storage density of Li-ion batteries.  Representatives from the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute were very impressed with the class project. A follow-up meeting with ONR is planned to define a project for next year's class.

The students were guided in their work by MIT professor of Mechanical Engineering Douglas P. Hart, with the assistance of mentors from Lincoln Laboratory, including Robert Shin, Nicholas Pulsone, Alex Bockman, Chris Lloyd, Joe Edwards, Laurel Keyes, and Paul Calamia.  Laboratory staff provided mission context, helped craft system requirements, and provide feedback at key design reviews. Prof. Hart said that these problem-driven courses "emphasize individual initiative, application of fundamental principles, and [uniquely encapsulate] the compromises inherent in the engineering design process. The culmination of the courses is the design of an engineering system that must undergo system integration and performance verification. Students also practice team presentations and formal system design reviews."

Interacting with students and faculty through capstone projects like this UUV course provides Lincoln Laboratory with a novel and unique venue for innovative research, providing a strong complement to the Laboratory's internal research and development activities.  This particular course was initiated when Shin introducing Hart to staff members in the Advanced Sensor Techniques Group to begin a dialogue on projects that could help the Navy in undersea applications.

Students from MIT who developed a power system for an AUV were at Lincoln Lab to present their invention. Rendering of an underwater vehicle using the novel energy storage technology.












The project is also making waves beyond the Laboratory and the Department of Defense. Prof. Hart and Jean Sack, the class CEO, were recently featured on CNN's “The Next List” in the NCAA College Innovator Special (at 6:30 into the episode).

Reflecting on the benefits of the course, Sack said, "This initiative is an incredible opportunity to work alongside brilliant students and mentors on an interesting, relevant project.  I learned far more from my experience in figuring out how to manage and work with people, get things done, make components work, and present a complex project than I did in the rest of my undergraduate education combined."

Pulsone, who has served as a class mentor the past two years, said, "I have been working with Doug Hart for two years on this project and it never ceases to amaze me how much innovation and dedication comes from the class. It's testament to Prof. Hart's ability to motivate and teach his students.  I am looking forward to next year's class."


Posted July 2013

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