Type 055 class destroyers in the Dalian Shipyard. The 10,000-ton destroyer series is set to incorporate a full electric propulsion system. Photos: Weibo

China’s state papers have praised a military scientist whose contributions could reportedly make the People’s Liberation Army’s next-generation warships “realize full electric propulsion”.

Prof. Xiao Fei, head of a research institution at PLA’s Naval University of Engineering in Wuhan, last week received a first-class merit citation in an honor list signed by President Xi Jinping, who also heads the Central Military Commission.

Prof. Xiao Fei. Photo: Handout

Xiao’s research concentrates on reconfiguring future warships’ powertrains in order to supply more power to shipborne weapons systems.

“A first-class merit citation is very rare in peacetime, which means Xiao’s contributions to China’s naval development are extraordinary and remarkable,” Wang Yunfei, a naval expert and retired PLA Navy admiral, told the People’s Daily.

The PLA Daily reported that Xiao, 41, led a team that drove research and innovation that helped the Chinese Navy to surmount vital technical hurdles during the modernizing of its nuclear submarine fleet. It also helped develop highly efficient steam turbines for the nation’s first homemade aircraft carrier.

But it was Xiao’s original research into an electric powertrain, namely, a medium-voltage direct current (MVDC) integrated power system that earned him a mention from President Xi. The MVCD was devised for a prototype of the nation’s shipborne full electric propulsion system.

The benefits of integrated electric propulsion are mainly the ability to place the electric motors closer to the propeller to shorten the shaftline and reduce space lost to funnels. This obviates the need for a gearbox or controllable pitch propellers, as well as giving designers the freedom to run all propulsion and ship services from a single prime mover for much of the ship’s life, thus dramatically reducing engine running hours and emissions.

At present there are only two types of warships among navies worldwide that are powered entirely by electricity: the Type 45 Daring- class anti-aircraft/missile destroyers of the British Royal Navy, and the US Navy’s futuristic-looking Zumwalt-class destroyers. The former has two 21.5 MW diesel generators to generate electricity while the latter harnesses power from permanent-magnet electric motors.

A Zumwalt-class destroyer. Photo: US Navy

Technologies developed by Xiao’s team will be used on the Type 052E destroyer, an improved version of the Type 052D, and might possibly be employed in the nation’s future nuclear-powered carriers.

The Global Times additionally revealed that Xiao’s MVDC power system is also the foundation of an electromagnetic gun system which, China claims, is the first operation-ready railgun to feature on a warship.

The colossal Type 055, China’s 10,000-ton class destroyer, is very likely to see an improved powertrain with electric propulsion in the near future.

According to the PLA Daily, Xiao is also the inventor of new microgrid panels for wind and solar power generators which enable stable power supplies for Chinese troops deployed on islands and atolls in the South China Sea.

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