How to smooth the ride for high-speed submarines

One way to increase the speed of underwater vehicles it to use bubbles to reduce drag. The technique is called supercavitation.

Sometimes these bubbles produce a bumpy ride, but now a team of engineers from Penn State’s Applied Research Laboratory (ARL) have an approach that could smooth things out.

In supercavitation, a bubble of gas encompasses an underwater vehicle reducing friction drag and allowing high rates of speed through the water.

“Basically supercavitation is used to significantly reduce drag and increase the speed of bodies in water,” says Grant M. Skidmore, recent Penn State PhD recipient in aerospace engineering. “However, sometimes these bodies can get locked into a pulsating mode.”

How supercaviation works

To create the bubble around a vehicle, air is introduced in the front and expands back to encase the entire object. However, sometimes the bubble will contract, allowing part of the vehicle to get wet. The periodic expansion and contraction of the bubble is known as pulsation that might cause instability.

“Shrinking and expanding is not good,” says Timothy A. Brungart, associate professor of acoustics. “We looked at the problem on paper first and then experimentally.”

water tunnel test
Photograph of a second order pulsating supercavity in the Garfield Thomas Water Tunnel facility’s 12-inch diameter water tunnel. The circular object is a window mounted hydrophone. (Credit: ARL/Penn State)

The researchers first explored the problem analytically, which suggested a solution, but then verifying with an experiment was not simple. The ideal outcome for supercavitation is that the gas bubble forms, encompasses the entire vehicle, and exits behind, dissipating the bubble without pulsation.

The researchers report the results in the International journal of Multiphase Flow.

“It is easier to study this problem in the lab than in open water,” says Michael J. Moeny, senior research engineer at ARL. “There are tow basins where you can pull models along, but it is harder to observe what is happening than in a water tunnel and the experimental runs are short because of the basin sizes.”

Water tunnel tests

The researchers decided to use the Garfield Thomas Water Tunnel facility’s 12-inch diameter water tunnel to test their numerical calculations.

“The water tunnel was the easiest way to observe the experiment,” says Brungart. “But not the easiest place to create the pulsation.”

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Creating a supercavitation bubble and getting it to pulsate in order to stop the pulsations inside a rigid-walled water tunnel tube had not been done.

“Eventually we ramped up the gas really high and then way down to get pulsation,” says Jules W. Lindau, senior research associate at ARL and associate professor of aerospace engineering. “It was a challenge because the walls of the tunnel are really close. Others couldn’t get pulsation in a closed tunnel. That’s what we did.”

Once they could predictably create the phenomena in the water tunnel, they then had to apply their numerical solution to the experimental model. They found that once they had supercavitation with pulsation, they could moderate the air flow and, in some cases, stop pulsation.

“Supercavitation technology might eventually allow high-speed underwater supercavitation transportation,” says Moeney.

The Office of Naval Research supported this work.

Source: Penn State

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