Energy Campus to Generate Ideas

Engineer John Heinzel demonstrates new fuel cell technology being developed at the Naval Ship Systems Engineering Station in South Philadelphia at the site of the former Navy Yard. Below, electric motors installed on a test facility that is being developed for the U.S. Navy.
Engineer John Heinzel demonstrates new fuel cell technology being developed at the Naval Ship Systems Engineering Station in South Philadelphia at the site of the former Navy Yard. Below, electric motors installed on a test facility that is being developed for the U.S. Navy.
Posted: July 26, 2009

In a cavernous Navy Yard building where seaplanes were once built, Navy researchers tinker on an assemblage of impressive engines - giant turbines that could propel a warship, or power a small city.

This is the Naval Ship Systems Engineering Station, a vestige of the Navy's shipbuilding yard in South Philadelphia. Here, Navy personnel are devising techniques to produce more power with less fuel for the nation's fleet, as well as testing power systems for a new generation of all-electric destroyers now on the drawing board.

Some regional development officials have greater aspirations for this sprawling naval station, which employs 1,500 people.

The Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp., the quasi-public city agency that is converting the former military base to private use, envisions the Navy station and its unique electrical infrastructure as a magnet for energy-related business.

According to the plan, the Navy Yard is already becoming an energy campus where businesses, academics and Navy engineers congregate and share knowledge about power systems. They hope that new commercial ventures - spin-offs from the Navy's research into alternative-energy sources or smart-grid technology - will emerge from such a creative environment.

The energy-campus promoters are not thinking small. They liken the Navy facility to a national laboratory that can become a regional hub for related developments. They believe that energy-related research and development might one day do for Philadelphia what computers did for Silicon Valley.

"We think we're involved with something here that could affect the overall economy in a big, big way in the long term," said Joseph J. Houldin, chief executive of the Delaware Valley Industrial Resource Center, a nonprofit economic-development agency.

"The Navy Yard has the potential to do for the energy sector what University City does for the life sciences," he said.

Development officials have been planning the energy-campus concept for several years, since studies suggested that Philadelphia needed to develop new areas of excellence to compete with "knowledge centers" such as Boston, San Francisco and North Carolina's Research Triangle.

"We began to look at the Navy seriously as our national lab, and that led us quickly to energy as a forward- growth strategy," said RoseAnn B. Rosenthal, chief executive of Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania, a economic-development agency.

Some of the Navy station's long-term vendors and suppliers have opened offices in the yard, and a few start-up energy ventures have located there, such as Light-Pod Inc., a four-year-old company that manufacturers solid-state lighting devices.

But the Obama administration's emphasis on developing alternative-energy programs has accelerated local officials' desire to promote the campus concept.

"We're in a position to take advantage of several billion dollars in federal funding, including new money for smart-grid development," said John Grady, a senior vice president for the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp.

PIDC has applied for a $15 million grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology to build a 100,000 square-foot Innovation Center at the Navy Yard to house a collaborative research lab. Penn State, whose engineering school has maintained close ties to the Navy station for four decades, and Drexel University would occupy much of the facility.

According to the PIDC, the $60 million building would incorporate "net zero" features - it would contribute more power to the grid than it would draw.

"The building itself would be a living laboratory in high-efficiency energy," said Grady.

The energy-related campus is the latest plan to emerge for the Navy Yard, a 1,200-acre facility that closed in 1996 after serving as a shipyard and Navy base for nearly a century.

The site still serves as the home for several Navy facilities - some inactive vessels are stored along the yard's docks. The yard has also become home for several new corporate residents, including Tasty Baking Co. and Urban Outfitters Inc.

But many of the yard's historical buildings remain unoccupied, and much land is still vacant.

Amid the Navy Yard's evolving landscape, the Naval Ships Systems Engineering Station has maintained a constant, though low-profile, presence.

Part of the station's self-imposed modesty is linked to its nuts-and-bolts mission: Its engineers concern themselves with non-nuclear, non-weapons-related systems, such as waste disposal and water purification.

"In the Navy, we're not on the sexy side of the business," said Charles H. Zimmerman, manager of machinery research and development programs.

But in the emerging world of green technology, the Philadelphia station's mission to save energy might become more fashionable.

In one lab here, a team of engineers is developing hydrogen fuel cells that Zimmerman said were cutting-edge technology.

In another lab, researchers are testing advanced lithium-ion batteries for large-scale uninterruptible power supplies. It's technology similar to what might one day be used on regional power grids, or modified for use in electric cars.

Andrea Vigliotti, who is supervising a project to retrofit the current fleet with hybrid power generators, said the new devices can improve fuel efficiency in a diesel-guzzling destroyer by as much as 9 percent.

"We're the Navy," she said. "We're never going to be all green. But we can be more green."

Other engineers are focused on testing lighter and more efficient power systems to conserve precious space on the next generation of all-electric vessels.

Twentieth-century ships employed massive engines that used mechanical power to turn the propeller shafts. The new ships will rely on turbine generators to power advanced electrical motors. The all-electric systems are more efficient and easier to maintain.

Each ship will become a floating power plant with its own grid, producing up to 100 megawatts of electricity that will supply everything from the radar to communications. Such systems will require advanced software to manage loads, as well as to survive attacks.

The Navy's research into how to develop power systems that can recover from an attack also has civilian applications, said Zimmerman. The contractors who are helping the Navy build systems to survive a direct hit also are thinking about ways to deploy the techniques in cities, to protect them from terrorists.

"Most of our vendors also have their eye on the commercial power market," he said. Those are the types of businesses that could be encouraged to set roots in the Navy Yard.

Contact staff writer Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947 or

comments powered by Disqus