The Heat Is Online

German Navy Launches Fuel-Cell Submarine (April, 2003)

Silent, deadly fuel-cell sub makes maiden voyage, April 8, 2003

KIEL, Germany - It can cruise under water for weeks without surfacing, is virtually impossible for enemies to detect and is about to make the German Navy the most advanced non-nuclear submarine fleet in the world.

The first fuel cell-powered submarine began its maiden voyage this week after decades of development, weaving silently between passenger ferries and freight ships in the northern port of Kiel before heading out into the Baltic Sea.

Built at the 165-year-old Howaldtswerke Deutsche Werft (HDW) shipyard, birthplace of the modern submarine and the yard where Nazi Germany built the U-boats that terrorised Allied shipping in World War Two, the "U31" uses tanks of hydrogen and oxygen to feed fuel cells which convert gases into water and electricity.

The technology allows the submarine to prowl silently under water for two or three weeks without resurfacing - a feat diesel-electric submarines cannot manage because they run on batteries when submerged and have to surface to recharge them.

As it generates no heat or noise from exhaust fumes it is also virtually undetectable, HDW claims, an asset the German Navy says will allow it to help allies set up underwater lines to protect ports or coastlines in hotspots around the world.

HDW is currently owned by U.S. investment group One Equity Partners but the technology is a key defence asset for Germany.

"For us it is a quantum leap," German Navy spokesman Gerhard Deisenroth told Reuters on board an HDW ship accompanying the U31's first sea trial.

"Now we have a boat that we can really use all over the world. If a crisis is brewing you can send a submarine to the area without being seen and without making a political statement."

The German Navy will put the first U31 into service next March, after its sonar systems have been deep-water tested and it has fired practice torpedoes in German and Norwegian waters.

Three more are on order and the Greek and Korean navies have also placed orders. But German government restrictions may limit the technology's export potential, with the current frosty political climate between Washington and Berlin creating a particular problem over sales to Taiwan.


Naval engineers have struggled for the best part of a century to keep submarines under water for longer while making them quiet enough to evade detection, an elusive dream until the advent of nuclear propulsion in the 1950s.

Nuclear technology allowed submarines to travel rapidly over thousands of miles to theatres of war, but proved too expensive for all but the biggest naval powers, while the radiation shields required to protect crews meant they were too large to operate effectively in coastal waters and shallow straits.

The U.S., Britain and the Soviet Union all tried after World War Two to develop a non-nuclear alternative to diesel power, with the front-runner for many years being the use of concentrated hydrogen peroxide to produce steam and drive a turbine.

"Compressed gas has its own hazards, particularly in a warship," said Mike Proudlock, a former British naval officer who spent seven years training submarine crews, adding that the test vessels often ended up floating to the surface in a cloud of white smoke, earning one the nickname "HMS Exploder".

The U31, which costs around $300-350 million, switches to fuel cells when it needs to loiter unnoticed at low speeds, but still relies on a diesel engine at higher speeds, meaning it can't compete with nuclear submarines on long-haul missions.

"With our experience of using conventional submarines you can do the long transits but you tend to be much slower," Proudlock said. "We got a nuclear sub to the Falklands in two to three weeks. A conventional submarine couldn't manage that."


The non-nuclear expertise at HDW, which built the first submarine in 1851 during the German-Danish war, has nonetheless caught the eye of the U.S. industry, which builds only nuclear subs but has pledged to sell eight conventional ones to Taiwan.

One Equity Partners, which snatched HDW out of German hands in a controversial buyout last year, has said it may sell the yard, and U.S. arms firm Northrop Grumman Corp has not ruled out taking a direct stake.

But the attractiveness of HDW, which has long said it wants to help build the Taiwan submarines, is limited by the German government's tight restrictions on arms exports.

The shipyard's spokesman Juergen Rohweder said that although the U31 would be ideal for Taiwan, particularly because its length of 60 metres made it small enough to operate in the region's shallow waters, the debate was now beyond their control.

"It's a question of politics whether or not they allow it, and you know the relationship between (German Chancellor Gerhard) Schroeder and (U.S. President George) Bush" Rohweder said. "The United States won't wait forever."

Northrop had hoped to work with HDW to fulfil President Bush's April 2001 Taiwan pledge, but has started to look elsewhere. General Dynamics Corp. has also submitted a concept for building the submarines.

To diffuse political worries about Germany's defence capabilities draining away, One Equity said when it bought HDW it would offer 15-percent stakes to German engineering firms ThyssenKrupp and MAN unit Ferrostaal.

Ferrostaal has said it is still interested in the HDW stake and is keeping its options open while ThyssenKrupp, itself struggling to cut heavy debts, has said it is debating whether taking a stake in HDW would make strategic sense.