The attack off the coast of Yemen nearly a decade ago on the USS Cole exposed weaknesses in the Navy destroyer’s bulkhead shaft seal.
After terrorists blew a hole in the side of the vessel, the seal failed to do its job: prevent flooding between compartments along the main propulsion shaft.
Naval officials realized they needed to redesign the system. Midé Technology Corp., a Massachusetts-based engineering company, looked to baby diapers for the answer.
Developers there created a new seal that sits idle when it’s not needed, activating only if the compartment fills with water. The process cuts down on the wear and tear that crippled the Cole’s seal, which activated whenever there was a difference in air pressure between adjacent compartments.
The new seal swells up the way diapers do, so that when it’s exposed to water, it expands and plugs up the shaft. The shaft can still operate when this “hydrogel” technology is engaged.
“It looks like a disc that goes around the shaft,” says Midé President David Gilbert. “Under normal operations, it doesn’t touch the shaft, but if it’s activated, the hydrogel pushes it up against the shaft.”
The patent-pending technology likely will cost about the same as current seals, Gilbert says. But he believes it will save the Navy money in the long-run because the seal lasts longer and requires less maintenance.
“We’re now selling it commercially to ships outside the military,” he adds.
The seal has been installed on four Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, and this year Gilbert expects to add the seal to four more. Developers are now working on a version that will be tested on littoral combat ships.