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College of Engineering and Computing

  • The power electronics team stands in front of Swearingen.

A 20-year seat at energy distribution’s most important table

By Abe Danaher | September 28, 2020

The college’s power electronics team of Roger Dougal, Herb Ginn, Enrico Santi and Kristen Booth currently has over $8 million in active funding from the Office of Naval Research. But, it is a grant received nearly 25 years ago that made today’s funding possible and cemented South Carolina’s place as a leader in energy distribution research.

Roger Dougal’s eyes dropped their gaze to the paper in his hands, before shooting back up quickly, like a ship in rough waters.

They dared a glance down again. Three years. Six million dollars. Was he reading that correctly?

The then-associate professor held the largest grant he had ever received, and, for what it’s worth, the largest grant he’d ever heard of anyone receiving at the University of South Carolina. He didn’t know what to do with it. He didn’t know if he could trust it. And he definitely didn’t know the future effect it’d have on his career, his college and his country.

All he knew was that things were about to change fast.

“We got the first year’s increment of funding for those three years, and we had to scale up from a fairly small operation to a much bigger operation. And I remember being a little reluctant to bet everything that the second-year money was going to actually come,” Dougal says.

But the money did come, and as a result of his successful work with it, so did a lot more. By 2002, Dougal and South Carolina were founding the Electric Ship Research and Development Consortium (ESRDC) alongside Florida State, Mississippi State and the University of Texas – bringing the brightest minds in energy distribution research together in an effort to fully electrify a naval ship.

Dougal didn’t know it in 1996, but his $6 million surprise had parlayed itself into a seat at what would become energy distribution’s most important table – elevating the profile of his power electronics team to a national level, bringing in over $40 million in funding from the Office of Naval Research over the next 25 years, and ensuring South Carolina’s integral role in creating America’s weaponry of the future.

“I think the horizon is finally getting here. You see all the little pieces falling into place, and you’re able to say, ‘hey, within the next five years, this capability should be really transition-able to vendors and the Navy.’”

- Herb Ginn, electrical engineering professor

At the time of the consortium’s founding, the Navy had never created a fully electric ship. It was well-known the benefits that an electric ship would offer, including greater protection against faults, more reliable ship performance and more efficient energy usage during operation. But, there was no template for how to create this ship.

The consortium worked to create this template by designing all the technologies needed for full direct current electrification. They worked as a team creating the control algorithms, power system architectures, protection mechanisms, and intelligence to make the electric ship possible.

“That really is the beauty of the ESRDC – it is all really tightly integrated,” says Herb Ginn, who joined the consortium in 2003 as a faculty member at Mississippi State, before coming to South Carolina in 2010. “Everybody has their focus, but there is definitely a good bit of overlap between the schools."

For South Carolina, its focus was on power electronics, controls and design simulation. Through a virtual testbed they engineered, South Carolina’s power electronics team allowed the Navy to see which of the consortium’s new technologies would work, and which technologies would work best together.

“When we first started developing the virtual testbed software, our idea was ‘give me a ship design that you haven't yet built, but you've designed and we’ll tell you how well it works,’” Dougal explains. “So, you don't have to go build it first to find out if it works. We'll build it in the computer first and tell you if it's going to work. And I think we really broke a lot of new ground with that technology.”

The success of this testbed led to the Navy wanting more. Instead of just simulating the design of one ship, they wanted to evaluate hundreds or thousands of ship designs at once to know which design was best. With the virtual testbed, this was not possible. So, South Carolina’s team created a new technology that allowed for faster simulation across a greater variety of designs. Its name was Smart Ship System Design, S3D. 

“Now, very quickly, you could assemble a concept for a ship and run it through various mission scenarios and evaluate how well it works,” Dougal says. “And you could do that, in principle, with hundreds of thousands of ship concepts.”

S3D allowed for the assesment of new technologies coming out of the consortium while also simplifying the evaluation process of ship designs. It answered the questions the Navy cared about: will this new technology allow the ship to move at the necessary speed? Will it allow the radar to work at the same time as the gun? What are the tangible effects this technology will have on ship performance?

Now, because of advances like S3D, the Navy is making strides toward successfully creating an all-electric ship. And finally, after nearly 20 years of research by consortium members, that end goal is in sight.

“I see relationships between some of these projects pulling together at a focal point,” Ginn says. “And I think some of the stuff we’ve been pushing for as far as advanced capabilities, I think the horizon is finally getting here. You see all the little pieces falling into place, and you’re able to say, ‘hey, within the next five years, this capability should be really transition-able to vendors and the Navy.’”

The culmination of the consortium’s research is something that Dougal thinks could change the future of Naval vessels, ensuring the United States continues to have the most advanced weaponry on the planet. It’s also not something he ever expected to see.

As he looks back on his 25-year long journey in naval research, he can’t help but remember 1996. Picturing the $6 million grant acceptance in his hand, his awestruck eyes and his unknowingness of what was to come, he can’t help but smile. 

He says, “I guarantee I never would have guessed that I would still be doing this this many years later.” But, alas, he and South Carolina are where they’ve been for a quarter century – leading energy distribution’s most important consortium into the future and helping bring about the world’s first all-electric ship.

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