ISU professor helps with underwater unmanned vehicles

unmanned mug

Courtesy of ISU

unmanned mug

Felipe Cabrera

One member of Iowa State’s faculty is helping create an innovative and green way to propel underwater unmanned vehicles.

Jonathan Claussen, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, joined Brian Iverson, assistant professor at Brigham Young University, and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory to create underwater unmanned vehicles that are used for simple tasks such as delivering payloads, lacing sensors and reconnaissance missions for the military.

The current issue is that these vehicles aren’t maneuverable with the propellers currently being used. Claussen said the issue with conventional propellers is it is difficult to get the thrust needed for quick burst for tight and accurate maneuvers. There have also been issues of propellers not having enough thrust to get the vehicles into charging stations.

Claussen found that using an old type of fuel to thrust the vehicle like a rocket is a better solution.

“We’re using hydrogen peroxide as the fuel source,” Claussen said. “What’s nice about hydrogen peroxide is that it’s completely green. It just produces oxygen and water as byproducts.”

Claussen said hydrogen peroxide goes as far back as being used to launch torpedoes from submarines during World War II. With platinum as a chemical catalyst, they are able to use low concentrations of rocket grade quality hydrogen peroxide to propel the vehicles.

“It’s much safer for the environment,” Claussen said. “It’s not rocket fuel like hydrazine that can be really caustic to the environment.”

The vehicles designed with the chemical green power source in mind are aimed to be cheaper to produce and biodegradable. Once the vehicle outlives its use, it degrades safely in the environment without the need for retrieval.

“We can’t get the technology in there that a typical drone would use,” Claussen said. “But this could be something really cheap … there’s no motor, no propeller, it could be a degradable disposable system.”

Iverson built the carbon nanotube structure for the chemical catalyst at Brigham Young. He initially approached Claussen about a device/design approach that was used for the carbon nanotube structure in the vehicle.

“We grow carbon nanotubes from a surface and then we coat the carbon nanotubes in with amorphous carbons,” Iverson said.

The carbon nanotubes are then grown in a pattern of arrangements reminiscent to squares on a scrabble board. The carbon nanotubes are used as a scaffold to make high-surface area micro channels.

The entire structure is used as a filter to push the hydrogen peroxide through the filter so it can interact with the platinum catalyst, creating the burst.

Iowa State has partnered with Brigham Young’s Naval Research Project, NASA and the Department of Defense to complete the underwater unmanned vehicles power source project.