Both the British and American navies are investigating ways to launch their aircraft with electricity. The two countries have begun funding test projects to determine the feasibility of installing electromagnetic catapults on their next generation of aircraft carriers. The new mechanism would do away with the clumsy and dangerous steam-powered slingshots of today and allow more planes to be launched in a shorter time.
The UK Ministry of Defence has just announced a planning and test programme to examine whether the ElectroMagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) is a viable option for use on the three aircraft carriers it has on the drawing board. This follows a similar decision late last year by the US government to explore the use of the same technology for its future ships. Late last year, the Pentagon gave teams from Northrup Grumman and General Atomics the task of developing the EMALS catapults. The theoretical device will store energy from the ship's regular distribution grid and then releases it through a hundred-meter-long linear induction motor. There's no waste with this system because the power output is easily controlled by electronic means.
Experts think that the EMALS will increase launch performance and make significant reductions in installed weight, volume, and manning workload requirements. There's also hope that the ability to tailor thrust to each specific aircraft will reduce the peak launch forces on the airframe and even allow the deployment of lighter, unmanned aerial vehicles.
One other interesting spin-off of EMALS is that it removes one of the major reasons for needing a nuclear power plant on a carrier. Up until now, only a nuclear vessel had sufficient power to quickly and economically produce the volumes of steam necessary for multiple aircraft launches.
With the increasing efficiency of electrical and direct drive propulsion systems, floating nuclear reactors may eventually become redundant.