Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) are becoming increasingly important for military surveillance and mine detection. Most AUVs are battery powered and have limited lifetimes of a few days to a few weeks. This greatly limits the distance that AUVs can travel underwater. Using a series of submerged AUV charging stations, AUVs could travel a limited distance to the next charging station, recharge its batteries, and continue to the next charging station, thus traveling great distances in a relatively short time, similar to the Old West “Pony Express.”
One solution is to use temperature differences at various depths in the ocean to produce electricity, which is then stored in a submerged battery. It is preferred to have the upper buoy submerged a reasonable distance below the surface, so as not to be seen from above and not to be inadvertently destroyed by storms or ocean going vessels. In a previous invention, a phase change material (PCM) is melted (expanded) at warm temperatures, for example, 15 °C, and frozen (contracted) at cooler temperatures, for example, 8 °C.
Tubes containing the PCM, which could be paraffin such as pentadecane, would be inserted into a container filled with hydraulic oil. When the PCM is melted (expanded), it pushes the oil out into a container that is pressurized to about 3,000 psi (≈20.7 MPa). When a valve is opened, the high-pressure oil passes through a hydraulic motor, which turns a generator and charges a battery. The low-pressure oil is finally reabsorbed into the PCM canister when the PCM tubes are frozen (contracted). Some of the electricity produced could be used to control an external bladder or a motor to the tether line, such that depth cycling is continued for a very long period of time.
Alternatively, after the electricity is generated by the hydraulic motor, the exiting low-pressure oil from the hydraulic motor could be vented directly to an external bladder on the AUV, such that filling of the bladder causes the AUV to rise, and emptying of the bladder allows the AUV to descend. This type of direct buoyancy control is much more energy efficient than using electrical pumps in that the inefficiencies of converting thermal energy to electrical energy to mechanical energy is avoided.
AUV charging stations have been developed that use electricity produced by waves on floating buoys and that use electricity from solar photovoltaics on floating buoys. This is the first device that has absolutely no floating or visible parts, and is thus impervious to storms, inadvertent ocean vessel collisions, or enemy sabotage.
This work was done by Jack A. Jones and Yi Chao of Caltech, and Thomas Curtin of NATP for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.