Chinese scientists say cheap SQUID submarine detector is world’s most sensitive

However, Chinese military experts believe that if the PLA can detect and potentially neutralise American submarines in open waters, it would greatly diminish the likelihood of US military intervention in China’s peripheral affairs.

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The researchers, led by magnetic physicist Zhang Yingzi from North University of China, said their design slashes costs while increasing performance by an order of magnitude, making it possible for the detectors to be widely fitted to UAVs.

The probes use superconducting coils which are capable of detecting the faintest disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic fields caused by submarines as they navigate deep waters.

The technology was developed by US scientists and first used on military aircraft in 1964 but was ineffective at detecting submarines in motion. It took years of work by researchers in Germany to achieve its first practical use.

China has invested heavily in submarine detection technology. Several years ago, scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences reportedly made significant breakthroughs, achieving higher sensitivity than German products.

But the technology’s cost remained exorbitant – each device contains at least six ultra-sensitive superconducting magnetic gradiometers, each equipped with a pair of superconducting coils.

Traditional wisdom holds that multiple sensors are necessary to accurately detect submarines hundreds of metres below the surface and estimate their location, speed, and other physical characteristics.

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But the research team challenged this paradigm and set out to solve the costs and other problems associated with the devices from the bottom up.

The team noted that magnetic gradiometers are not only expensive, they are also prone to mutual interference when packed tightly together, compromising overall system performance.

A single failed gradiometer can also render the entire system inoperable, posing significant challenges for military maintenance crews, the scientists said.

The team started with a deep dive into the principles of physics, using mathematical formulas to show that multiple gradiometers are not essential for submarine detection, and went on to redesign the internal structure of the device.

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According to the paper, the researchers have designed a probe that uses a single superconducting magnetic gradiometer to achieve a “remarkable” increase in precision, compared to those in use by anti-submarine forces across the globe.

Zhang’s team increased the number of coils to four, arranging them so that they perform the work of six gradiometers (or 12 superconducting coils).

The reduction in components significantly minimises the device’s internal noise, resulting in a cost-effective model that surpasses the sensitivity of its high-priced predecessors, the researchers said.

The simplified design will not only drastically reduce costs, it will also minimise maintenance requirements and the risk of malfunctions during operational use, they said.


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According to the paper, field tests have shown that the instrument remains stable in open and complex environments, and detect extremely weak magnetic anomaly signals.

While Zhang’s team has not disclosed any specific applications for the research, her university is closely linked to the military, with most of its graduates going to the defence industry.

Zhang’s key collaborators in the study are from Beijing Milestone Technology, a joint venture between the government and private capital, which has already integrated some magnetic detectors into UAVs and underwater vehicles, according to its website.

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