It is a novel idea, both literally and figuratively. In novelist Tom Clancy’s “Hunting for Red October,” he writes about a stealth propulsion system for a submarine known as the caterpillar drive.
For Hugh Nicholson, who was experimenting in the 1980s with the interaction of high velocity streams of water in developing a high propulsion engine, Clancy’s fictional submarine was intriguing. He wanted to know how the author was envisioning the sub’s inner workings. The two men began a correspondence that led to Clancy’s support and investment in developing a prototype engine of Nicholson’s design. Now, years later, that effort has culminated in a new company called Maelstrom Marine, a Sarasota company that hopes to assemble and distribute the RipJet electric-powered jet drive to the marine industry.
And the propulsion engine’s applications could go much further. Ken Hall, a veteran of the marine industry who has worked at Pro-Line Boats, Donzi Marine, Phoenix Yachts and SportCraft Boats, has come out of retirement to be chief executive officer for the start-up. He is working on a business plan to flesh out all the possibilities of Nicholson’s invention.
The RipJet is an electric water propulsion motor that looks like a miniature aircraft jet turbine engine. The engine provides 40 percent more thrust per horsepower than an outboard motor and 500 percent more thrust than any current water jet pumps used on personal watercraft, Hall said.
Testing at the University of Michigan’s hydrodynamics lab showed that a 15-pound RipJet could create a thrust comparable to a 175-pound conventional gas motor, he said. “And it’s silent technology, you can barely hear it running,” Hall said. It has hybrid lithium batteries and its design and construction make it impervious to seaweed, grass and other debris in the water. “The smooth, streamline pod with flexible rubber housing elements nudges things out of the way without injuring them,” Nicholson said. It’s totally green technology, Hall points out.
In its first introduction into the marketplace at the recent Miami Boat show, Hall said the motor drew great response from marine manufacturers of personal watercraft and boats.
The company is looking for an assembly and distribution site in Florida. Hall hopes to hire 50 employees initially with an eventual 250-employee workforce. “Leon County has already thrown its hat into the ring, they’ve shown tremendous interest,” Hall said. “We will go where we can get the best assistance.”
Hall and Nicholson think the potential uses for the motor are many. It could be modified to act as an aeration system for large bodies of water like fish farms, small lakes and waste disposal systems.
Nicholson has already had discussion with the military, a connection he made through Clancy, who is still connected to the project as an investor and one of the company’s board of directors. Clancy helped Nicholson confirm that the military was not working on any similar projects, he said. “It was a novel concept, I wasn’t duplicating any ongoing research,” Nicholson said.
Hall estimated the startup costs for the company is $10 million. He’s not worried about tight credit markets because the product’s potential is so great he thinks investors and government entities will be ready to help out financially.
“The application for this product holds tremendous potential and will revolutionize the way propulsion systems are used,” he said.