President Trump got into Hot Water with the Navy this week for his suggestion that they should go “back to god-damn steam” for their airplane catapults as a cure for cost over-runs and delays with the Navy’s aircraft carriers. The Navy had chosen to go to a more modern catapult called EMALS (electromagnetic, aircraft launch system) based on a traveling coil and electromagnetic pulses. This EMAL system has cost $5 Billion in cost over-runs, has added 3 years to the program, and still doesn’t work well. In response to the president’s suggestion (explosion), the Navy did what the rest of Washington has done: blame Trump’s ignorance, e.g. here, in the Navy Times. Still, for what it’s worth, I think Trump’s idea has merit, especially if I can modify it a bit to suggest high pressure air (pneumatics) instead of high pressure steam.
Tests of the navy EMALS, notice that some launches go further than others; the problem is electronics, supposedly.
If you want to launch a 50,000 lb jet fighter at 5 g acceleration, you need to apply 250,000 lbs of force uniformly throughout the launch. For pneumatics, all that takes is 250 psi steam or air, and a 1000 square inch piston, about 3 feet in diameter. This is a very modest pressure and a quite modest size piston. A 50,000 lb object accelerated this way, will reach launch speed (130 mph) in 1.2 seconds. It’s very hard to get such fast or uniform acceleration with an electromagnetic coil since the motion of the coil always produces a back voltage. The electromagnetic pulses can be adjusted to counter this, but it’s not all that easy, as the Navy tests show. You have to know the speed and position of the airplane precisely to get it right, and have to adjust the firing of the pushing coils accordingly. There is no guarantee of smooth acceleration like you get with a piston, and the EMALS control circuit will always be vulnerable to electromagnetic and cyber attack. As things stand, the control system is thought to be the problem.
A piston is invulnerable to EM and cyber attack since, if worse comes to worse, the valves can be operated manually, as was done with steam-catapults throughout WWII. And pistons are very robust — far more robust than solenoid coils — because they are far less complex. As much force as you put on the plane, has to be put on the coil or piston. Thus, for 5 g acceleration, the coil or piston has to experience 250,000 lbs of horizontal force. That’s 3 million Newtons for those who like SI units (here’s a joke about SI units). A solid piston will have no problem withstanding 250,000 lbs for years. Piston steamships from the 50s are still in operation. Coils are far more delicate, and the life-span is likely to be short, at least for current designs.
The reason I suggest compressed air, pneumatics, instead of steam is that air is not as hot and corrosive as steam. Also an air compressor can be located close to the flight deck, connected to the power center by electric wires. Steam requires long runs of steam pipes, a more difficult proposition. As a possible design, one could use a multi-stage, inter-cooled air compressor connected to a ballast tank, perhaps 5 feet in diameter x 100 feet long to guarantee uniform pressure. The ballast tank would provide the uniform pressure while allowing the use of a relatively small compressor, drawing less power than the EMALS. Those who’ve had freshman physics will be able to show that 5 g acceleration will get the plane to 130 mph in only 125 feet of runway. This is far less runway than the EMALS requires. For lighter planes or greater efficiency, one could shut off the input air before 120 feet and allow the remainder of the air to expand for 200 feet of the piston.
The same pistons could be used for capturing an airplane. It could start at 250 psi, dead-ended to the cylinder top. The captured airplane would push air back into the ballast tank, or the valve could be closed allowing pressure to build. Operated that way, the cylinder could stop the plane in 60 feet. You can’t do that with an EMAL. I should also mention that the efficiency of the piston catapult can be near 100%, but the efficiency of the EMALS will be near zero at the beginning of acceleration. Low efficiency at low speed is a problem found in all electromagnetic actuators: lots of electromagnetic power is needed to get things moving, but the output work, ∫F dx, is near zero at low velocity. With EM, efficiency is high at only at one speed determined by the size of the moving coil; with pistons it’s high at all speeds. I suggest the Navy keep their EMALS, but only as a secondary system, perhaps used to launch drones until they get sea experience and demonstrate a real advantage over pneumatics.
Robert Buxbaum, May 19, 2017. The USS Princeton was the fanciest ship in the US fleet, with super high-tech cannons. When they mis-fired, it killed most of the cabinet of President Tyler. Slow and steady wins the arms race.