The Navy, Futuristic Weapons and Seawater Fuel

Jonathan Strickland

U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams/Released

I'm a peaceful guy. I like to see science and technology put to use in ways that help people. But at the same time, I realize that various militaries around the world have really driven technological and scientific development. If it weren't for the antagonistic relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union, we may never have gone to the moon. So I've come to accept that military advancements will often lead to greater benefits in the long run.

Over the years, the Navy has been involved with numerous inventions and research projects, from the development of the HAARP research facility to funding The Onion Routing project (Tor), which lets you surf the web anonymously. And soon the Navy will be unveiling two futuristic weapons and a new way to fuel massive ships with seawater.

Let's take the weapons first. Last week, the Navy announced that by the end of the summer it will install a new laser weapon aboard a ship. The weapon is called the Laser Weapon System or LaWS and it's going on the USS Ponce. The weapon's targets? Unmanned aerial vehicles and small boats. Navy officials say that the weapon costs about one dollar per shot and that as long as they have energy they'll never run out of ammo.

LaWS can make use of advanced targeting systems to hone in on a potential threat. A single operator controls the laser and can adjust the level of power to either disable or destroy a target. The operator also fires the laser when ordered to do so.

On top of laser weapons, the Navy also announced plans to deploy an electromagnetic railgun by 2016. Essentially, this gun will use magnetic force to propel a guided projectile toward a target. The projectile has so much kinetic force that it doesn't require an explosive payload -- the impact of the projectile is enough to get the job done. In a way, the Navy is going back to the days of firing non-exploding cannonballs. It's just going to use electromagnets instead of gunpowder. And these cannonballs can be guided and have a range of 110 nautical miles.

Why use railguns? It all comes back to money. One of the primary weapons aboard Navy vessels is the missile. But missiles are incredibly expensive. According to the Navy, operating an EM railgun is orders of magnitude less expensive than using missiles.

And on the less pew-pew-laser and whoosh-boom-railgun side of things, the Navy has been working on ways to create fuel using ordinary seawater. Essentially, the Navy is breaking seawater down into basic components and then harnessing two of those -- hydrogen and carbon -- to create a hydrocarbon fuel. Their hope is to use this fuel for ships at sea and maybe even planes as well. This would remove the need for vessels to stop mid-mission to refuel next to a tanker because the ship could just make fuel as it carried out orders.

These technologies may one day aid us in non-military ways we can't anticipate right now. And they also have the potential to keep the women and men who serve in the Navy -- as well as people around the world -- safe. Who knows what they'll cook up next?