Northrop Grumman Corporation
Falls Church, VA

Northrop Grumman Corporation has signed its first non-exclusive agreement to manufacture niobium-based connectors (NiobiCon) specifically designed for harsh environments.

NiobiCon is a new way of making electrical connections underwater that enables power transfer and data exchange without using seals, oil or moving parts.

This technology was developed to address the inefficient recharging of unmanned vehicles in underwater environments. When the niobium connector enters in contact with the water, it creates its own thin isolating layer, which gets scraped off when the connection is made. Once disconnected, the layer instantly regenerates.

The technology was invented by a team of Northrop Grumman engineers who set out to create a safe, reliable and affordable way to connect electric currents in a wet or corrosive environment and keep the power surging. Systems Engineer Jim Windgassen and Northrop Grumman Fellow Harvey Hack were each working on connector technology for different reasons but with the same goal — to extend the relatively inefficient battery recharging of unmanned underwater vehicles while submerged.

Windgassen had been taking a different but related approach to the underwater connector problem when he learned that Hack used a metal called niobium for its corrosion resistance. This sparked Windgassen to think about how to apply fundamental principles of tantalum capacitors to make underwater connectors. Niobium and tantalum are similar metals, and it made Windgassen consider how a tantalum capacitor works in the first place, thus becoming the genesis of NiobiCon.

NiobiCon is a revolutionary self-insulating wet-mate electrical connector that can be mated and de-mated while fully exposed to water — a first of its kind. Contacts will not corrode, and electronics will not short out. This new connector technology has the potential to be less expensive, smaller, lighter, more reliable and safer than current wet-mate connectors. Typically, underwater connectors between electricity and water attempt to exclude water from their contacts by using expensive, less reliable rubber seals, oil or moving parts. NiobiCon inverts this paradigm and can be used while submerged or anywhere there is a wet, corrosive environment.

Collaboration with cross-functional teams was essential for the development of NiobiCon. Initially, a team of three worked on the proof of concept: the two inventors and a technician to construct the test device. Their team eventually grew as they developed the design and more people were invited to lend their skills in finite element analysis, intellectual property (IP) licensing, business development and funding.

Northrop Grumman entered into an agreement with iCONN Systems LLC, which specializes in the manufacture of connectors for harsh environments, as their first non-exclusive licensee. They will work with potential customers to develop more reliable interconnects for both commercial and defense applications.

Northrop Grumman promotes innovation in its employees through its SPARK program, a company-wide crowdsourcing platform for employees to propose new, innovative ideas and collaborate with colleagues from across the enterprise. By allowing Hack and Windgassen the freedom and resources to develop their unique concept, what began as a SPARK project became a unique solution to combine electricity and water for which two U.S. patents have since been granted.

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