MIT spinout Open Water Power (OWP) has developed an aluminium-water power system that’s safer and more durable than current drone batteries. They say the new system will give underwater drones a tenfold increase in range over traditional lithium-ion batteries used for the same applications.
According to the Global Unmanned Underwater Vehicles Market report, the unmanned underwater vehicle market is experiencing an advanced rate of growth over the past years due to the increasing demand in commercial, defense and military and scientific research applications.
It highlights the growing demand for unmanned water vehicles in naval applications, the increase in offshore oil and gas activities and the growing need for oceanography as the major factors driving the market. But - the main problem to-date has been range limits imposed by their alkaline or lead-acid batteries.
OWP claims their new system will increase the range of UUVs tenfold, while also making their operation easier. It consists of a alloyed aluminum, a cathode alloyed with a combination of elements (primarily nickel), and an alkaline electrolyte that’s positioned between the electrodes.
So how does it actually work? According to a statement on the MIT website:
“Once the drone is in the ocean, seawater is pulled into the battery. The cathode splits the sea water into hydroxide anions and hydrogen gas, which releases electrodes. Those electrodes circle back to the cathode, giving energy to a circuit which starts the process over again. The anions and hydrogen are thrown back into the ocean, harmless. The aluminum will eventually corrode but can be replaced cheaply.”
One of the system’s inventors Salmon McKay compares it to a car engine, where water is the oxidizer feeding the chemical reactions, instead of the air used by car engines. "Our power system can drink seawater and discard waste products," says McKay. "But that exhaust is not harmful, compared to exhaust of terrestrial engines.
A longer lasting battery will allow the UUVs to dive deeper for longer. This could be useful for a wide variety of projects, from conducting research to mapping the ocean floor or exploring wreckages.
"In looking for the debris, a sizable amount of the power budget for missions like that is used descending to depth and ascending back to the surface, so their working time on the seafloor is very limited," he says. "Our power system will improve on that."
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