The Bedwell Company

Navy is opening labs here that peer into the future

The Navy's engineering station in Philadelphia is being expanded this fall to create systems for vessels that won't go to sea for a decade or more.

For 90 years, engineers there toiled mainly with a wide range of problems on existing ships. But in laboratories to be dedicated today, the Philadelphia Naval Ship Systems Engineering Station will take on research and development of mechanical systems for ships still largely in the imagination stage.

"Our job is to help the government make informed decisions on where to spend money, and to reduce the risks in introducing new concepts," said Charles Zimmerman, assistant director of the new Machinery Systems R&D Center.

The center will add 275 jobs at the station, a unit of the Naval Surface Warfare Center, which occupies 22 buildings on the old Philadelphia Naval Base at the foot of Broad Street.

About 40 percent of the personnel is moving here from labs being closed in Annapolis, Md. The rest will be transfers from other military units or new hires.

The new labs will bring employment at the Philadelpha station to 1,650, with a payroll of $53 million annually, part of an operating budget of $315.3 million.

The labs are being built for $28 million in a pair of old buildings at the old Naval base. One is Building 77-Low, adjacent to the old blimp hangar where airplanes were built for World War II. The other is Building 87, the base's former transportation center and bus barn.

Moving the labs to Philadelphia makes sense, said John M. Sofia, director of the new center. It will have strong ties to area universities and businesses, and its work can be more easily coupled with the stations work on existing ships.

Small-scale systems developed in the new labs can be more easily tested in the full-scale test beds -- working models of ship engine rooms -- in the adjacent Building 77-High.

Some labs won't be finished until early next year, but many already are in use.

In a section of the east bay in cavernous Building 87, for example -- in an enclosed area because the work is secret -- various components of a submarine propulsion shaft are being tested. This lab can simulate the pressure of deep water and other conditions that might lead to catastrophic failure in battle.

This and other systems being tested there will become part of the next generation of submarines, called the Virginia class.

A wide range of systems designed to automate ships and improve the quality of life for sailors already is being conceived and tested there.

"We can demonstrate concepts on a small scale, then build full-scale systems for testing," Sofia said.

These developing systems monitor their own performance and automatically work around problems or failures.

The two buildings being converted to house the center have a total of 239,000 square feet.

Much of the center's work focuses on making pumps, fans and mechanical systems quieter -- and harder to detect by enemy warships.

So the center has three labs that are shielded from the noise of nearby machinery and low-flying jets landing at the nearby Philadelphia International Airport.

That area includes the world's largest absolutely quiet room, called an anechoic chamber, with 3,900 square feet and a 50-foot high ceiling, for tests that would be distorted by extraneous noise.

Nearby is a 60,000 -gallon water tank for work with pumps that adjust the depth at which submarines cruise, searching for ways to make them quieter and more durable.

The labs also will work with fuel cells that convert diesel fuel to electricty, as well as other new forms of energy.

That and work on a host of electronic issues often will be done in collaboration with private companies and universities.

"We want to entwine ourselves with the local universities," Zimmerman said. "We want to send our employees for advanced degrees, co-op students and graduates..., and provide opportunities for professors and their students to work in our labs."

Through cooperative research agreements with the government, he added, the facilities are available to private companies, including those that may someday build ships in the old Philadelphia Naval Shipyard nearby, which closed in 1995.

The people who work in these labs, Zimmerman said, can help the Navy and private shipbuilders "assure that there are no surprises when a new ship goes out for sea trials."

By Henry J. Holcomb
Philadelphia Inquirer, Friday, October 22, 1999

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