"Given that half the submarines currently on order will be equipped with air-independent propulsion systems, second-generation fuel cells are both a critical technology and an enormous challenge for DCNS.” This was how the guide introduced the machine that a Mer et Marine journalist — the very first — was about to inspect at DCNS’s Indret plant near Nantes. DCNS Indret has long specialised in propulsion systems for the French Navy and international client navies, but, over the last ten years, an Indret-based team has been working in complete secrecy on innovative second-generation fuel cells for submarine AIP systems.
The quest for greater submerged endurance
To date, all diesel-electric submarines have been obliged to surface or snorkel to recharge the batteries that provide power when fully submerged. At such times, submarine are, however, acutely vulnerable to enemy detection.
This explains why leading submarine builders have worked hard, particularly over the last 20 years, to extend the submerged endurance of their conventional-propulsion boats, or SSKs.
From nuclear power to Mesma AIPs
Drawing on nuclear engineering technologies developed for 22 nuclear-powered submarines (ten SSBNs and twelve SSNs) built or under construction for the French Navy, DCNS designed the Mesma AIP with a combustion chamber burning ethanol or fuel oil in the 1990s. Ethanol-type Mesma modules were retrofitted to two DCNS-designed Agosta 90B boats in 2008 and a new-build Agosta 90B …
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