Electric drive benefits Scripps’ fleet

By Deborah Hatch

Scripps Institution of Oceanography runs four ships with a combined age of 108. Bruce Appelgate, Ph.D., is the man charged with sustaining and maintaining this fleet, one of the nation’s largest academic research fleets.

The newly appointed associate director for ship operations and marine technical support at the institute says his role “is to take scientists out to sea and make it so they can get their research done.”

To do this, Scripps leases two ships: the 279-foot Melville and the 273-foot Roger Revelle from the U.S. Navy. UCSD owns two smaller ships: New Horizon and Robert Gordon Sproul.

But whatever the size, it is expensive to keep ships at sea. The average daily rate is $30,000.

“We do everything we can to be as efficient as we can,” said Appelgate. Conserving energy on board a ship is a major concern, turning off lights and saving gas are constants. And research is conducted at all hours when a ship is out.

One way to stretch dollars, go easier on the environment and allow scientists a better platform for research is to install electric drives.

The Melville underwent a massive reconstruction in the early ‘90s. Part of the overhaul included introducing two electric-drive motors. Cables now connect the motors to the propellers, so not only is there no longer a propulsion shaft in the center of the boat, the electricity can be negotiated throughout the ship in a more efficient and cost-effective manner. The Revelle is also an electric-drive ship, burning fuel to generate electricity that is sent through cables in order to move the ship’s propellers.

“For us, fuel is the second biggest cost component,” said Robert Knox Ph.D., Appelgate’s predecessor. This makes the features of electric-drive more desirable. Crews are able to turn generators on and off, saving energy. And keeping extra carbon out of the atmosphere is a priority.

The New Horizon and the Sproul operate on more traditional -- and noisier -- propulsion engines. Before long they may need to be replaced or refitted.

“Scientists are looking for ways to keep the ship quiet,” said Knox. For example, the Melville is currently in the Philippines studying and mapping the ocean floor. The quieter the ship is, the better the research.

Also, maintaining the maneuverability of the ship while researchers collect water samples and test ocean temperatures is valuable to the work. The electric-drive allows the ship to hold its position while researchers collect information from the sea with fewer water and noise disturbances.

“However building one of these ships is a colossal investment,” said Knox.

In recent years, the Navy, with the need for speed and fuel efficiency, started producing electric drive warships. The Makin Island will be commissioned in San Diego in April 2009, and is the first in its class with gas turbine engines and electric drive.

“If it wasn’t for the Navy’s investment in ocean science, we would not be as far down the track in ocean science as we are,” Knox said. The money for research ships travels from the Department of Defense, through the Office of Naval Research, which then passes funds on to ocean science.

As those funds encourage more electric-drive ships, administrators such as Bruce Appelgate will have an easier, cleaner and more effective tool for taking scientists out to sea to get research done.

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