With the Surface Warships conference taking place this week, navies across the globe are combining to assess future threats, and more importantly take a look at the latest technology to sustain their navies in ever evolving and complex international seas. GE’s Power Conversion business is at the heart of everything that requires energy on a ship, in an age of increasing sophistication of onboard weapon systems, radars, and sensors to name a few.

As the role of power generation plays a more complex role on board future naval vessels, including modern surface ships, DSSI talk with Nick Smith, Technical Director, at GE Power Conversion on how the modern naval vessel is evolving, and how navies can keep up with changing advancements of capabilities, by future-proofing onboard electrical power and grids. Electricity has a very important role to play in the advancements of these vessel capabilities and roles.


Surface Warships, on this week, is an important time for the industry annually to recognise the evolving requirements for future vessels in the naval domain, with different levels of navies assessing what the requirements are. One of the things that we’ve noticed in terms of future surface vessels is how ships are evolving with more multi role requirements, which has increased the requirements of digital systems on board naval vessels, which naturally leads to an increase in demand for power. How does GE’s technology currently keep up with this high-powered demand for naval vessels?

Nick Smith / GE:-

GE has supported navies all around the world for more than 100 years with prime movers and electrical power systems, and among many of the pioneering things that GE has done, is really the electrification of naval power, and propulsion. We have more than 100 ships operating today around the world using either our full electrical or hybrid power systems, from aircraft carriers to submarines and everything in between. On an architectural level, the concept of a centralized large power plant, shared across mission systems, ship systems and propulsion is a very good match for this increased electrical power requirement and it is entirely scalable.

We produce electrical power systems – from a few megawatts in Type 23s 30 years ago, to more than 100 megawatts for the QE class aircraft carriers – so the scaling of electrical power is part and parcel of our electrification business, for both onshore and marine energy requirements. The exciting thing, looking into a future with digital and emerging technologies, is the scope for technology insertion into a centralized power system, throughout the system’s life cycle.  This includes the ability to accommodate emerging future loads, such as energy weapons, and more green power sources.

We also have a strong digital position, not only for the marine controls, such as dynamic positioning of vessels, but remote access and collection of data for equipment analytics. For example, in sectors such as gas turbines in aviation and marine we already use advanced technology, digital twins, advanced analytics and data to understand the past, the present and predict the future. This can improve the asset lifecycle, costs and predictability and will continue to evolve.

How does the increase in power generation technology affect the ship’s performance, in terms of future capabilities and add-ons? Does this affect the ship’s weight or thermal signature?

It’s a good question – while power demands are increasing, we can’t assume there will be more space or weight available to meet those demands.  So, we have to focus on power density improvements, both in electric ship systems and in prime movers, such as our gas turbines. Example on our LM2500 gas turbine, we shipped our first, new lightweight composite module, which further increases power density, allowing more power to be put on-board the vessels. Indeed, with the enclosure we can realise a 50 percent weight saving, along with lower noise and better thermal performance.  It’s clearly important we innovate on our current products as well as looking to the future.

Our customers and their requirements are driving this electrification at sea. We have had electrification on land, with the creation of power grids in the twentieth century.  This land electric grid concept is really the same thing as the micro-grid at sea – a flexible, centralized power network which drives innovation at the consumer end, and the generator end independently, and helps to future-proof for scale and technology insertion.

The on board power grid is a vital part of the future capability for the navy, and ability to accommodate existing and new prime movers as well as existing mission-critical loads. Future weapons, future radars and C4ISR all have a common theme: they require increased, high quality, stable and responsive electrical power, not only to power system operation and controls, but also to deliver the effects themselves.  That means, using very high bursts, electrical energy will be 21st century gun powder, if you like.

In terms of the technology evolving, this new way of enabling  high levels of power throughout the ship, how does this work in terms of greener energy initiatives,  in terms of long term what are the advantages of that?

Electrification is good; we’re able to have both more capable and cleaner solutions and combine them together. Fundamentally, electrical architectures give the ability to operate any plant, including existing plants, in a greener way. You can optimize the running hours, engine loadings, so they allow efficient operation of the equipment you currently have. They also enable the inclusion of emerging technologies such as energy storage into the power network to complement existing fuel-burning technology and optimize it further, as well as insertion of future technologies, both envisaged and not yet envisaged, such as fuel and flow cells, and alternative, newfuels and the prime movers those fuels they may power. They can all inherently be connected to electrical networks.

Taking an example, electrification can integrate existing combustion engines, future fuel cells, energy storage, hydrogen and even nuclear, meaning it’s uniquely placed to be flexible and more optimized. Like onshore, it’s impossible really to see a path to carbon neutral or zero emissions without a substantial electrical element in the network or the grid, so GE Power Conversion and GE Marine are aligned to this vision of cleaner, flexible, efficient, capable, electrical power.

How does GE see its role in maintaining the operational capabilities of a digital ship, with the rapid advancement of digital technologies how does GE manage to keep up with rapid increases of energy demands?

One of the advantages we have with electricity over other technology, it’s always been fast acting in its nature – the controllers, power electronics and power systems – have always operated at machine speed.  We’re now just seeing digital technologies catch up, in being applied to other systems. So the same controllers we use to control electrical power and power electronics are used in the processing of the digital space, so the digital and information technology interfaces well with the electrical technology.

Added to that, we’ve been at the forefront of vessel automation, and operator-assisted controls and HMIs as well, such as dynamic positioning and vessel automation. For us, digital intelligence and connectivity are natural stablemates with power and control networks, so GE is in a great position to interface controls and high electrical power – it’s really part of our DNA. We’re always looking for the best physically smaller, more efficient, but more powerful equipment, whether that’s engines, machines, power electronics or the digital equipment that we connect into.

Looking at the future, the evolution of naval vessels, from a technology standpoint, GE are one of the major partners and contractors in a large complex jigsaw, when it comes to building a vessel. What could we expect from GE in the near future, in terms of technology that you’re working on behind the scenes, or looking to release pretty soon?

There’s a lot in the pipeline, focused around enhancing customers’ operational capabilities and flexibility, for both commercial marine and naval applications. That includes enhanced levels of efficiency and supportability through new architectures and products. We’re working on closer integration of mechanical electrical elements into the system.  We’re able to do this through a long and proven pedigree in power and propulsion technologies, but perhaps, more importantly, expertise in integrated systems.  That’s what allows us to get to advanced, more flexible micro grids.

We’re supporting navies in the move towards electric drive ships at GE Power Conversion and GE Marine.  It’s particularly timely as leading navies, such as Korea and US, are evaluating solutions for their next generation programs, such as LSC and KDDX. We’re also looking forward to the sea trials of our technologies, such as our ultra-quiet hybrid electric systems, on the Royal Navy’s Type 26 and the exciting Global Combat Ship programs in Australia and Canada.

We’re deploying energy storage, we’re designing in fuel cells and solid state energy stores to support the green initiatives, both on new platforms and retrofits, making even the last generation more efficient. The ability to generate, store and divert the electrical power of the system is key, we’re also working on the automation deploying that to be able to upgrade those systems.

We have new and efficient electronic switches in the pipeline, such as silicon carbon-based, to increase power and reduce losses, to cope with larger ship power networks.

We have an important focus on artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomous ship initiatives, scoping out requirements for future platforms for remote and on-board controls.

So the future is about the fusion of power electronics and electrical machines and distribution equipment, more power dense and more integrated. For us the message is key – the future is bright and the future is certainly electric!… watch this space.