04 Jan 2024
by Carly Fields

A vision for efficient, environmentally friendly naval systems

In the rapidly evolving landscape of naval technology, the call for more efficient, environmentally friendly, and technologically proven solutions resonates louder than ever.

Speaking at IMarEST’s Engine as a Weapon conference, David Barton, Sales Manager for ABB Marine Systems and Navy Sector, emphasised the remarkable progress with efficient, sustainable, and technologically-sound solutions in the commercial marine sector, attributing it to the combined forces of commercial pressures and legislative mandates. 

He urged the naval community to embrace these advancements: “Adopting these shouldn’t be seen as a detriment to mission capabilities or even operational ability during peacetime. Indeed, they could open possibilities to leverage their wider benefits and in turn enhance operational capabilities.” 

ABB has been collaborating with navies and designers to bring the benefits of commercial marine system integration to the naval sector. Barton stressed the importance of leveraging existing, proven systems rather than developing new militarised products with high development costs and low support. 

Barton noted a pivotal shift in global naval trends, with an increasing focus on efficiency, higher technology readiness levels, and the integration of electrical energy as the platform backbone for adaptability and future capabilities. He highlighted the changing landscape and the imperative for navies to achieve more with less. 

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Image: David Barton’s presentation; credit: ABB 

Greater flexibility 

One key aspect highlighted was direct current (DC) distribution, specifically low voltage (LV) 1,000V DC. ABB originally developed its DC grid to enhance efficiency by reclaiming variable speed on generators. “We now exploit its added benefits with its smaller footprint, ease of integration for energy storage and shaft generators, greater flexibility for mission and system modularity and improved redundancy through higher fault tolerances,” he explained.  

The DC grid, a customisable electrical system platform, eliminates the need for large transformers in propulsion and non-sensitive loads, contributing to a simpler and more efficient design. The modular power system platform offers flexibility for integrating energy sources and loads, with applications ranging from simple to demanding, covering the low to mid-power range. 

Acknowledging that DC is not always the answer, Barton admitted it has limitations. “Alternating current (AC) makes sense when you have a simple onboard distribution system without any converter loads, [and] when you have a stable load and when you’re running your diesels on fixed speed. DC cannot beat that; you just introduce unnecessary conversion steps.” 

But when some converter loads are introduced, for example electrical propulsion, you can benefit from variable speed engines, reduced footprint and weight.  

And when batteries are added, DC is generally more price efficient, and at the very least is at the same price level as an AC system, but with a significantly higher efficiency, he added: “This is where commercial operators see the real payback. As soon as you consider energy storage integration, whether ‘fit now’ or ‘fit for but not with’, DC generally makes sense.” 

Efficiency gains 

Making a comparison between low voltage alternating current (LV AC) and DC systems, Barton emphasised efficiency gains with DC, especially in scenarios involving variable speed engines, electrical propulsion, and energy storage integration. 

He also highlighted the critical importance of considering efficiency at every stage of the electrical design to reduce power plant size or increase range and capability. 

Real-world applications of ABB's navalised DC grid includes the German F126 program with Damen Naval and the ASW frigates for the Royal Netherlands and Belgium navies. These implementations demonstrate the viability of commercially proven DC systems for front line naval vessels, with a focus on green functionality, fuel savings, flexibility, and modularity. 

"While we don’t have all the answers, a lot of the solutions exist, and they have been commercially proven,” he said. “They will lower your costs through the life of the platforms, increase your availability, provide future flexibility, and will be a little nicer for our future generations." 

Engine as a Weapon is held biannually and brings together naval defence experts, with the most recent edition taking place in November 2023. 

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Main image: Military radar from an US aircraft carrier; credit: Shutterstock