Iowa-class Battleship Reactivation

This project is so complicated that it requires its own page. Fair warning, the last time I printed it out it was 55 pages long, and that was before I added the missile information. So watch out because it's likely to take a while to load the entire page.


There are a couple ideas for Seasteads that apply to the U.S. Navy's missions. I've outlined them on this page.

SSBN Conversions

The Ohio-class submarines were designed to carry 24 Trident missiles as a part of America's nuclear triad. With the end of the Cold War, the primary purpose of these ships has disappeared. Though four Ohios have been converted into Tomahawk missile carriers and support vessels for the Navy SEALS, I've thought up a few more options.

Most of these conversions are based on the idea that the Trident missile tubes are either modified to suit a new purpose or removed and replaced entirely. In addition to the obvious purposes of the ship's conversion, there are additional benefits to the American shipbuilding community: Maintaining skills with nuclear propulsion systems, keeping shipyards busy, and keeping the subs that the U.S. taxpayer has purchased busy and active rather than flushing the money straight down the toilet.

Submersible Naval Gunfire Support Ship

The Trident missile tubes are at least 44 feet tall and 7 feet 4 inches (88 inches) in diameter. These dimensions are adequate to store one of a series of naval cannon, including the current 5"/62 caliber and the AGS being developed for the Zumwalt-class destroyer. Whichever cannon is selected, it will be mounted on an elevating platform that will lift the gun clear of the sub's hull. The gun barrel will be stored vertically (or nearly so), and after elevation to the firing position the barrel will drop to the correct angle to fire.

In addition to the cannon carried by the sub, the two launch tubes directly behind the submarine's conning tower would be converted to the SEAL/Special Operations compartment used in the converted SSGNs. This spacing will hopefully mitigate the effect of firing the cannon on the periscope and electronic systems located in the conning tower. Converting these two tubes for SEAL use leaves twenty-two missile tubes that can hold cannon and ammunition. By mounting the cannon in a "zig-zag" configuration in the missile tubes, like this:

Placement of cannons in old missile tubes.

...eleven cannons can be carried on the ship. In this image, Sail marks the location of the conning tower, G marks the position of a gun, A marks a gun's ammunition magazine, and S marks the location of SEAL/Special Forces lockout tubes. In any case, this configuration means each ship would carry nearly the equivalent of two 6-gun artillery batteries. If the SEAL lockout tubes are omitted from the design the ship can carry two artillery batteries' worth of cannons.

It's important to note that the cannon and its elevation gear will fill up the storage tube completely, with no room left over for ammunition. Therefore, the missile tube opposite the tube with the cannon will be converted to serve as an ammunition magazine. An automatic loader will move shells from the ammunition magazine to the cannon.

Placing the ammunition in a tube has an additional benefit: The ammunition can be loaded aboard ship through the large missile hatch in one large unit rather than loading individual shells and propellant bags. Placing the shells in ammunition trays and stacking them like dinner plates allows the ammunition to settle into the magazine the way bullets slip into a rifle magazine. See the image below for one example of this ammunition magazine.

Concept drawing ammunition trays stacked up like dinner plates in a cylinder that fits into a converted missile tube.

This reloading process can be performed in one of several ways:

  1. An elevator inside the magazine lifts out the ammunition trays
  2. A shore-based crane lifts the ammunition trays into position
  3. A crane could be installed on the sub's missile deck (most likely a knuckleboom crane similar to the one on the San Antonio-class ships)
  4. The standard VERTREP process, which uses a helicopter in place of a crane for reloading at sea

Even more interesting is the idea of using standard 40 foot shipping containers to ship a complete reload for an ammunition carrying tube. This would allow standard cargo container shipping methods to bring the ammunition to the sub's home port or operational base.

UAV Carrier

This conversion would provide airborne assets for intelligence gathering and special operations forces. There are currently several small and micro UAV's that could be launched from the missile tubes, but for the greatest effectiveness a series of modifications should be made to the MQ-9 Mariner (Reaper) class UAV currently in development. Basically the wings would need to fold down quite a bit, since the Mariner's 66 foot wingspan is a lot to cram into a 7 foot diameter tube. So 33 feet on each side of the fuselage, folded in half is 16 and a half feet which is pretty good. Once they're folded in half, they could lift up to the vertical, and then rotate forward so they're parallel to the fuselage. The fold in the center of the wing would then be pointed in the same direction as the nose of the drone. This shouldn't add too much length to the drone, so the 36 foot length should slip right into the tube.

The other big problem is finding a landing and launching facility. The approximate 128 feet of the Ohio-class missile deck probably isn't going to be long enough to allow the drone to lift off. The only options I can think of right now are:

Of course the first two options don't explain how the ship would recover the drones once they've launched and run their mission. So I think maybe the last option is the best. The drone could use inflatable pontoons when landing if the Navy doesn't want to use solid skinned floats.

A better idea might be to use the RQ-7B Shadow drone for testing. It has a considerably shorter wingspan, so it would be easier to put into the tubes. It's also a lot lighter than the Mariner, so it's easier to move around.

VLS Monster

This conversion removes all the existing missile tubes and replaces them with standard MK 41 VLS systems. Since the Ohio missile deck takes up approximately 125 feet, it should be possible to put four 61-cell MK 41 VLS launchers in place of the old missiles. Why do this when we already have Tomahawk launching subs? We should do this in order to increase the number of missiles a sub can put on the target. The current SSGN conversions can carry 154 missiles; Using four 61-cell launchers means the ship could carry 244 missiles. That's an extra 90 missiles to launch at enemy positions. Sounds like a good idea to me, especially given that there are some gaps in the Navy's ability to provide fire support for the Marine Corps.

Submarine Propulsion Experiments

Replace the standard drive shaft model used by current submarines with a set of four Azipods. Put one Azipod on each of the boat's aft control surfaces. With their ability to be directed in any direction through 360 degrees around the X and Y axis, this configuration would provide an extremely maneuverable craft. In addition, the fact that the Azipods are electrically driven means that propulsion power can be distributed over cables rather than having a large metal drive shaft running through the center of the ship. The Ohio-class ships currently get about 44 megawatts (60000 shaft horsepower) of propulsion power, and Rolls-Royce Mermaid podded propulsors have a power range between 5 and 25 megawatts of propulsion power each.

Here are two images that show a simplified view of both traditional propulsion setups and my proposed podded propulsion system.

Traditional submarine propulsion Submarine showing central propeller/propulsion unit replaced with podded propulsors on each of the four aft control surfaces.

This concept fits very nicely with two of the Tango Bravo project's goals:

  1. Propulsion concepts not constrained by a centerline shaft.
  2. Technologies that eliminate or substantially simplify existing submarine hull, mechanical and electrical systems.

Replace the standard drive shaft propulsor/propeller with an electrically driven waterjet system. In particular the Rolls-Royce rim-drive propulsion thruster, once it can provide more power than 800 kW. Again, the use of electricity to deliver power to the propulsor means that a heavy driveshaft can be replaced by a set of electrical cables that allow for more flexible positioning.

Updates to the SSGN conversion

My friend Jeff, who was a Naval Science minor at Miami, reviewed the submarine ideas and sent me his notes. (I've edited the note slightly for style, but the content is still intact.)

Well, even though you don't have the resources to do it, the first problem is how much any of the submarine retrofits will cost and whether they would be cost effective. I recently read something where they might be backing off on the number of f'ing cool in sleekness Zumwalt destroyers even before the program really gets going so money is a HUGE concern. However, they all are interesting and good ideas.

As for the sub being a fire support vessel, well since that would become it's primary function people will basically say, "why have you turned it into a surface ship?" And the secondary function of SOG missions might conflict with the fact that the vessel is above water for it's primary mission. And one of the things I think the Navy is trying these days is shows of force/strength and showing the sub defeats it's stealthiness and is just another gunboat in fleet in appearence.

The UAV carrier idea is problematic. First, the redesign of the UAVs and how they are launched might prove problematic. But mainly, what else would the sub do? You've got a boat out there only doing UAV flights? It would need something to be a co-primary mission to look cost effective. And then there is also the idea that to recover the UAV you're looking to but the boat back on the surface again.

VLS monster would really only come down to cost effectivness for the retrofit. Is it worth the 90 extra missiles per boat or would it be easier to send two subs for 300+ missiles?

The propulsion experiment is...well, an experiment so any boat that is not combat effective could fit the role.

Just a few notes for ya,


This is why having someone who knows about the topic on call is a good thing. You see I didn't even think of the lack of flexibility of the UAV carrier, or the VLS monster variant being too expensive for the amount of missiles it provided. But with Jeff's comments in mind, I sent back the following message:

Jeff Horger wrote:

Well, even though you don't have the resources to do it, the first problem is how much any of the submarine retrofits will cost and whether they would be cost effective. I recently read something where they might be backing off on the number of f'ing cool in sleekness Zumwalt destroyers even before the program really gets going so money is a HUGE concern. However, they all are interesting and good ideas.

As for backing off the Zumwalt coolness, that project has been trouble since day one. It's the Navy's version of the Army's Future Combat System[Wikipedia, GlobalSecurity]. After pissing money away for years on projects that return literally nothing to the Navy, they're finally realizing that they bit off more than they could chew.

To your point about the submarine refits being cost effective, well, is converting an SSBN to fire Tomahawks at a cost of $700 million per ship cost effective considering that we could purchase additional Arliegh Burke class DDG's at that cost? I really don't think so. All I'm trying to do is wring every last penny out of the submarines that I've paid for via taxes before they get sent to the breakers.

As for the sub being a fire support vessel, well since that would become it's primary function people will basiclly say, "why have you turned it into a surface ship?". And the secondary function of SOG missions might conflict with the fact that the vessel is above water for it's primary mission. And one of the things I think the Navy is trying these days is shows of force/strength and showing the sub defeats it's stealthiness and is just another gunboat in fleet in appearence.

The surface fire support vessel is a response to Marine Corps statements that they're not happy with the state of fire support the Navy can supply. The destroyers in use currently can't do the job, and the Navy just canceled the ERGM so they have no long range capability. My thought was this: We put a Marine unit offshore but the bad guys don't see enough support so they relax a bit. Then when the Marines attack, the Ohio gunship surfaces, deploys guns and demolishes everything in the Marines' path.

The UAV carrier idea is problematic. First, the redesign of the UAVs and how they are launched might prove problematic. But mainly, what else would the sub do? You've got a boat out there only doing UAV flights? It would need something to be a co-primary mission to look cost effective. And then there is also the idea that to recover the UAV you're looking to but the boat back on the surface again.

Good point: I hadn't considered the lack of flexibility. How about putting some cannons on the ship for gunfire support? Like a half and half deal. Even better, we could dedicate such a ship to the Special Operations Command the way the Air Force dedicated certain aircraft. That ship could provide team transportation, fire support via cannon/VLS, and air support via UAV. Sort of a "surgical LPD" that can hide underwater.

As for the UAV's themselves, once they get converted for submarine launch and recovery, the surface ships of the Navy could be refitted to launch and recover them from shipping containers. Then destroyers, cruisers, littoral combat ships, and other vessels could have their own organic air support/observer capability without requiring SH-60's. And if they can be converted to carry ASW equipment or other weapons, so much the better. So the development cost of the UAV's could be offset by the fact that all the Navy's ships could use them rather than just the Ohio class submarines.

VLS monster would really only come down to cost effectivness for the retrofit. Is it worth the 90 extra missles per boat or would it be easier to send two subs for 300+ missiles.

Good point. My thought there was that it would be cheaper to use a standard surface ship VLS that had been modified for the submarine rather than the custom VLS system currently in use. And once the VLS system had been hardened for underwater use, new production could be built to the higher standard for longer lifespans on surface ships.

So those were my arguments to Jeff. And I think there's a lot of potential in the "submersible LPD" idea that combines sub based cannon, missile, and UAV support to SOC teams or amphibious assaults. In the conventional shore assault role, the ship could use Tomahawks to destroy fixed defenses from far away, and then surface to launch cannon fire at emplaced troops or other strong points. Not to mention that we could actually develop a module that can contain mine-hunting UUV's, so the Ohio sub could get close to shore and neutralize enemy minefields without the enemy knowing it.

Now that is a good idea: Imagine if we could've deployed two Ohio subs in Desert Storm to destroy Saddam's minefields. The Navy's destroyers could've closed with the shore a lot sooner, and provided more effective gunfire support. After the mine clearing mission had been completed, the subs could've delivered special operations teams to the shore to strike inland targets, standing by to provide Tomahawk and cannon-based fire support.

So with all this in mind, I'd create a new sub payload model that uses the 24 tubes (mission bays) as follows:

Number of tubes Tube purpose Tubes left
2 cannon 22
2 cannon ammunition 20
2 troop deployment/SEAL lockout 18
1 UAV launch/retrieval 17
1 UUV launch/retrieval 16
16 Tomahawk missile launch tubes 0

But that's the beauty of it! If you need more missiles, put them in place. If you need more UAV's and UUV's, put the control modules in place. It just doesn't matter. You can customize the ship's payload based on the mission parameters.

Containerized Weapons and Ammunition

By placing these systems in standard shipping containers and using a standardized interface specification like RJ45 (Ethernet) or IEEE 1394 (FireWire) in the containers and the ship hull, Navy vessels could be reconfigured for specific missions relatively quickly. This is a logical extension of the idea introduced to the Navy by the Littoral Combat Ship family and the Sea Fighter prototype. This just puts more focus on adding additional mission specific firepower to larger surface combatants (destroyers and cruisers).

There are several advantages of using the container as the framework for a weapon system:

  1. Easily shipped around the world
  2. Excellent use of space
  3. Provides common dimensions for design teams
  4. Provides standardized locations for power and data bus interfaces, which makes ship design much easier
  5. Provides a set of standardized packages for military planners that can be placed on any number of ships

After looking at the dimensions of the new MK57 VLS system Raytheon is developing for the Navy's Zumwalt-class destroyer, it looks like the current four-cell launcher can be sliced in half and put into a standard 40 foot long shipping container. This would provide two launch cells that can handle all of the VLS compatible missiles currently in the Navy's inventory. In addition to working as a traditional VLS system, it may be possible to use this containerized PVLS derivative as a replacement for the old Armored Box Launchers that were used on the Iowa-class battleships. In other words, launch the missiles horizontally rather than vertically.

Another possibility is placing Harpoon or SLAM missiles in a 20 foot container and point it over the side of a ship to replace the MK 141 quad launchers used currently. Or the same idea, but use torpedoes/antitorpedo torpedoes instead of Harpoons. The torpedoes would probably need to have some sort of booster rocket to launch them out of the container and into the water. For air defense, it would be possible to launch Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles from a container, either vertically or horizontally. Set up the container in a configuration similar to the Future Combat Systems NLOS-LS system, and the missiles could really be packed in there. As an added bonus, any ship that carries this ESSM container would be able to provide air defense capabilities to its battlegroup or convoy.

Submarine canisters

The Navy is using the diameter of the Ohio-class SSBN's to develop plug in modules. I just saw it on Defense Industry Daily. These modules are also going to be inserted into Block 3 Virginia-class subs. So there's some good news. The entire submarine force becomes more flexible, because the Ohio and Virginia subs can use each other's modules. Plus it drives down the cost of development since defense contractors have a standard size and set of fittings to use when they're developing payloads.

Using the Ohio-class boats as the baseline canister development means that each module can be about the same size as the Trident II SLBM. So in theory the module can be 44 feet long, about 7 feet in diameter, and weigh up to 130,000 pounds. That's a lot of space. Kind of a strange format though, which is why I like the shipping container idea.

Automated Decoy Launch Systems

The Navy is constantly trying to find a way to reduce the number of sailors needed to operate their ships. At the same time, there is a decoy launching system called the SRBOC. This system holds six decoys in a ready to go configuration, but once the ready decoys are launched a sailor has to go out and reload the SRBOC launcher by hand. This is dangerous because the ship is in combat, and it requires at least one sailor to reload the system.

With these thoughts in mind, it seems that the logical replacement is the adaptation of a system like the Marine Corps Dragon Fire II automatic mortar or the Advanced Mortar System (AMOS). Though the AMOS doesn't allow six decoys to be launched simultaneously, its turreted system allows decoys to be launched in any direction and at greater ranges than the SRBOC. In addition, the twin-barrelled AMOS system can launch 26 rounds per minute. That's a lot of decoys! These systems are more flexible than the SRBOC launcher as they are able to launch any 120mm mortar round in the U.S. military inventory. The AMOS mortar has also been selected as a competitor for the Army's FCS Non-Line-of-Sight Mortar (NLOS-M) system, so parts procurement will be easier.

The only real downside to this idea is that the mortars use tubes that are 120mm in diameter, while most of the decoys are 130mm in diameter. It's unlikely that a whole new class of decoys using the smaller size will be developed, so the system will need to be re-engineered to use a larger diameter barrel. To use traditional mortar rounds in the larger barrel, a saboting system or other adapter is needed.

Cheap Missile Carriers

Convert older tankers into pseudo-Arsenal Ships by putting Mk41 VLS systems into hulls as first line ships are refitted with Mk57 VLS systems. This is a stopgap weapon system. It would need to use remote targeting capability and have protection from mines and missiles. Small crew size though.

Basically the ship becomes a remote launch platform for the surface ships in a battlegroup. The missile payload is controlled by the AEGIS cruisers in the battlegroup, probably via the Cooperative Engagement Capability under development now.

Stirling Engine Signature Reduction System

One thing that has become clear in my investigations is that the Navy is always looking for ways to reduce the signature of their ships. This makes them harder to detect, which has an immediate and obvious effect on the lifespan of the ship and its crew. At the same time, I loathe seeing a potential resource go to waste. It just offends me.

With those two thoughts in mind, I came up with the idea of refitting Navy surface ships so that there are Stirling engines either in or near their exhaust systems. The waste heat that makes up the ship's engine exhaust would be used to power the Stirling engine, which in turn generates electrical power for the ship. Since the Stirling engine is transforming the heat of the exhaust into mechanical energy, this means that the exhaust gases will rapidly cool down. As a result of this cooldown, the exhaust gases that would otherwise act as a giant flare in the infrared spectrum are much closer to ambient atmospheric temperatures. This means that the giant heat plume would be eliminated, and the ships would be much more difficult to detect with thermal viewers.

Update March 20, 2008- It looks like the Navy already thought of this one. There's more information available from, but here's a quick overview:

RACER (Rankine Cycle Energy Recovery) was the Naval Sea Systems Command [NAVSEA] program to design and develop an advanced, combined gas turbine and steam turbine [COGAS] power plant. The RACER (Rankine Cycle Energy Recovery) system was planned for development and application to US combatant and auxiliary ships. The system will use the exhaust energy from an 18MW gas turbine to produce steam and generate power in excess of 6MW for additional ship propulsion power. The RACER System is expected to provide an overall propulsion fuel reduction upwards of 25%.

In the 1970's and 1980's the United States Navy investigated a marine application of a Rankine cycle system, referred to as the Rankine Cycle Energy Recovery (RACER) System. Rankine cycle systems can include a turbine coupled to an electrical generator, a condenser, a pump, and a vapor generator. The vapor generator is subjected to a heat source (e.g., geothermal energy source). The energy from the heat source is transferred to a fluid passing through the vapor generator. The energized fluid subsequently powers the turbine. After exiting the turbine, the fluid passes through the condenser and is subsequently pumped back into the vapor generator. In land-based applications, the condenser typically includes a plurality of airflow heat exchangers that transfer the thermal energy from the water to the ambient air.

On December 21, 1984, in response to Chairman Price's letter, the secretary certified that "the lead ship, DDG-51, will be capable of being equipped with RACER system without rearrangement of ship spaces and equipment or other major modification to the ship." Further, the Secretary advised that although the solicitation for the DDG-51 was issued on August 31, 1984, the Navy planned to issue an engineering change proposal to modify the ship's design to meet the authorization act's requirements when the shipbuilding contract is awarded.

A review of the legislative history indicates that the Congressional purpose in requiring the certification was to assure "that the lead ship of the DDG-51 program can be readily backfitted with racer system," and that the first ships in the class be "designed to accommodate an inexpensive retrofit of RACER without extensive modifications." See H.R. Rep. No. 98-691, 87-88 (1984); and S.Rep. No. 98-500, 74-75, (1984). The congressional concern that the lead ship be capable of accommodating the RACER without extensive design changes to an operational vessel apparently stems from the fact that the RACER and DDG-51 class ship were being developed simultaneously and the lead ship of the class may be on line before development of the RACER is complete.

The authorization act was enacted into law on October 19, 1984, but the solicitation for the DDG-51 had been issued on august 31, 1984. Apparently the solicitation issued at that time did not allow for incorporation of the racer without major modification to the ship because the certification letter of 21 December 1984 indicated the Navy's plans to issue an ECP to the shipbuilding contract to permit this. Because the solicitation had been issued when the congress imposed the certification requirement, it appears reasonable that the navy should now indicate that the ship "will be capable" of being equipped with the RACER. Additionally, the Navy's statement that an ECP would be issued to amend the shipbuilding contract once a contractor was selected is concrete evidence that the navy not only understands the requirement but is taking action to comply with the mandate. Bath Iron Works was awarded the shipbuilding contract in April 1985, and in September 1985 the Navy in fact issued an ECP requesting Bath to change the lead ship's design to comply with the certification requirements. Bath responded to the ECP and the Navy issued a contract modification in June 1986.

During DDG-51 design, space was provided to include the Rankine Cycle Energy Recovery (RACER) system, a steam system under development at the time that recovered gas turbine exhaust heat to provide additional propulsive power. While it promised significant efficiency improvements, this program was cancelled because of major technical development problems.

The RACER system, which utilized high-pressure steam as the working medium, was coupled to the drive system to augment propulsion horsepower. RACER could not be used to power any accessories because it as coupled to the drive system; i.e., if the drive system was not engaged, neither was the RACER system. The RACER system was never fully implemented and the program was cancelled because of problems associated with using high-pressure steam in a marine application.

Update October 25, 2008-- Hey it looks like someone's beaten me to it. The good folks at Kockums have already created a Stirling AIP system that's in use on the Gotland and Södermanland class submarines. This system will also be used on Japan's new Soryu class submarine. The Kockums system provides 75 kilowatts of electricity to the submarine at a very low signature. This system could probably be modified to sit in the exhaust stream of any surface vessel, providing more electrical power to the ship from a waste product (heat) and simultaneously reducing the ship's thermal signature. Here's a description of how it works in the Soryu-class:

The Stirling engine is a heat engine. Heat is produced in a combustion chamber separated from the actual engine. The heat is tranferred to the engine's working gas, operating in a completely closed system. The working gas forces the pistons in the engine to move, thus producing mechanical energy. In other words, all the Stirling engine needs is heat and it doesn't really matter how the heat is produced. It can come from anything that burns: oil, diesel, petrol or gas. Or the heat may come from the sun. Letting a concave mirror concentrate the sunbeams on a Stirling engine, driving a generator makes for the present the most efficient conversion of solar energy to electrical power. In addition, the Stirling engine is flexible, silent and practically vibration-free. All these characteristics open a wide field of applications.

Acoustic signature considerations are somewhat less important to a surface combatant, but still there's an advantage there. Just plug in the submarine AIP unit and suddenly you've got a great deal of free electricity you didn't have previously. How can you lose?

Update February 4, 2008-- I just saw a story on about a Smart Robot Capable of Hunting For Its Own "Food" . According to the main Networkworld article, the robot is based on an Army MULE chassis, and the power is generated by a Waste Heat Engine (WHE) from Cyclone Power.

...the WHE runs on heat as low as 225 degrees.

The WHE is capable of producing up to 16 HP of mechanical output, which is sufficient to power a 10 kW electrical generator.

Two or more engines in-line or networked can be used to generate greater power output.

So here's another means of reducing thermal signatures aboard ship. Just plug some WHEs in the exhaust stack of the ship and get free power!

It may also be possible to use Waste Heat Engines as heat sinks for a carrier flight deck. Apparently the temperature of a carrier flight deck in the Persian Gulf is somewhere between 120 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. That's only half the temperature needed by the WHE, but I'm sure Cyclone Power is working on it.

Thermoelectric Signature Reduction System

After reading this article, titled "Free Power for Cars" it occured to me that the Navy would also benefit from the research.

The basic concept is simple: Convert heat directly into electricity. To this point however the processes has been far too inefficient for anything other than niche applications. But with the advances in nanotechnology has automobile manufacturers very excited.

Recent advances using nanotechnology, however, have revived this moribund field, and have car makers such as General Motors and BMW taking notice, hoping to increase fuel efficiency and eventually replace alternators and possibly even internal combustion engines with thermoelectric generators.

As much as 70 percent of the fuel energy burned up in car engines doesn't go toward moving the vehicle along or powering the CD player, he said. Instead, it's dissipated as waste heat. Stabler says a new generation of thermoelectric materials can convert heat to electricity well enough to be used for taking the burden of electricity generation off the engine, thereby saving fuel.

If the next generation of thermoelectric materials can be manufactured inexpensively, they could be used in more demanding applications. Wrapped around a car's exhaust pipe, for instance, they could harvest waste heat to produce electricity. Initially, this electricity might be used to supplement the electricity generated by the vehicle's alternator, making it possible to run more electrical devices without adding more strain to the engine.

So to sum up the benefits I've highlighted:

  1. Reduces fuel use
  2. Provides more electrical power
  3. Reduces heat signature

Since the need for electricity in surface ships is only going to increase over time, converting waste heat to electrcity is an obvious solution. As the waste heat will be removed from the exhaust stack, this thermoelectric process will provide a corresponding drop in thermal signature. A smaller thermal signature makes the ship harder to see and thus more likely to survive attack. In addition, since the ship is producing more power from waste heat, there will be less wear and tear on the engines and less fuel will be needed. Given the high fuel prices we see today, this is a pretty big benefit.

There are some other possible benefits to shipboard life as well. For one thing, attaching the thermoelectric concentrator to the underside of a ship's deck will reduce the deck's temperature. This means that when deployed to the Mediterranean Sea, the crew will be able to spend more time on deck. This cooling effect is particularly useful on aircraft carriers with their wide flight decks.

Plant-Based Bioremediation of Marine Corps Firing Ranges

Added April 22, 2008. This idea could be placed on the Ideas for preserving Earth page, but since it's focused mostly on the military, I thought this was a better place for it.

While watching a Modern Marvels episode titled "Bullets", a Marine Corps captain spoke about the large amounts of lead contamination in the firing ranges used by the American armed forces. His point was that because of this lead contamination, the Armed Forces are now fielding a "green bullet" which doesn't leave behind toxic materials when fired. This only leaves the larger problem of getting rid of the lead currently stored in live-fire ranges and exercise areas.

I think I have a cheap solution for this problem: Plant-based bioremediation, also known as phytoremediation. In this process, several techniques are used to remove or reduce contaminant levels in soil. For this project, I think the use of phytoextraction (plants drawing the contaminant into their "bodies" and storing them) would be the main process used. All the Marines have to do is plant a lot of sunflowers or allow ragweed to grow in the lead-rich areas, and over the course of several years the plants will "suck" the lead out of the soil and store it in their biomass. It's cheap, it's easy, and it makes the ranges look a lot prettier (if sunflowers are used) or turns a weed into an asset (if ragweed is used).

There are several secondary benefits to this idea for the Navy. The plant bodies that are sequestering the lead can be used as sources for cellulosic ethanol production once that process has been perfected. This process would have to allow the heavy lead to fall to the bottom of a capture tank or otherwise be removed from the ethanol so it doesn't get into the air, but once that's done, every vehicle on the base could use this fuel source. This would in turn reduce the unit's fuel costs. This is the main benefit to ragweed: The Corps just plants it and cuts it down once a year. If sunflowers are used instead, there are other benefits. First, the oil produced from sunflower seeds can be used as a bio-diesel source material. Second, the increased amount of seed enhanced the environment for various birds and wildlife. Any seeds that are not processed into oil or eaten by wildlife fall to the ground and re-seed the range with new lead-extracting plants. In addition to the biodiesel from the sunflower seed oil, the sunflower biomass can also function as an ethanol fuel source.

Alternatively, the base commanders could sell the biomass to a local civilian ethanol producer as feedstock. This allows the Marine Corps to focus on sharpening their skills, stimulates the local economy, and provides fuels to the base that have lower environmental footprints. Now that I think about it, this might be the best solution. The military outsources the rehabilitation of the lead-heavy ranges to a third party, which in turn provides fuels at low or reduced cost to the military. In addition, the use of these lead-heavy lands does not require the landowner to choose between growing foodstuffs or ethanol feedstock. This land is currently agriculturally useless, so any plants grown on the land are "bonus" crops above and beyond what would normally be produced.

In addition, sunflowers are one of the plants that honeybees really like. So the Marine Corp's former firing ranges could be used to help fight Colony Collapse Disorder!