In the film “The Hunt for Red October,” based on the Tom Clancy book, the Soviet Union deploys a high-tech submarine that is nearly undetectable and upsets the balance of Cold War nuclear détente.
According to a report this week in the South China Morning Post — an independent English-language newspaper published out of Hong Kong — the Chinese military is working on an even more ambitious kind of submarine.
Researchers at the Harbin Institute of Technology told the Post that they’re currently working on a submarine that would travel inside a virtually frictionless air bubble, enabling the sub to travel at supersonic speeds underwater.
In fact, according to the report, the sub could travel from Shanghai to San Francisco in less than two hours. Analysts are skeptical of those numbers, according to a follow-up report in the Washington Post, but the science behind the concept is valid.
In fact, research into the basic technology has been happening since the height of the Cold War. The submarine design employs a process called “supercativation,” in which gases expelled from the nose of the vessel create an air bubble that surrounds the entire vehicle. Certain types of torpedoes already use the technology.
The main problem with the system, as it exists today, is that there’s no reliable way to steer a vessel when it’s in supercativation state. The Harbin Institute researchers claim to have solved this problem by way of a liquid membrane that would coat the vessel when traveling at high speeds. The membrane could be adjusted on the fly, as it were, to create different levels of friction on particular parts of the vessel.
The researchers also said that the technology isn’t limited to submarines. “If a swimsuit can create and hold many tiny bubbles in water, it can significantly reduce the water drag,” researcher Li Fengchen told the Post. “Swimming in water could be as effortless as flying in the sky.”