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Inventor plumbs the depths of innovation

Update: March, 17/2013 - 09:07

Going under: Tran's 3.2 metre submarine being tested in a swimming pool late last year. File Photo

by Luu Van Dat

Phan Boi Tran, 61, a composites expert, was preparing to test his mini submarine in a swimming pool in 2010, when he heard someone wondering if the vessel would come back up again.

He was amused because, as he claims, he had successfully made a submarine 25 years earlier and sold it to the Libyan Government.

Come up it did.

But for a long time after the tests in June and August 2010 no one knew about them.

Recently, at the third anniversary of the HCM City Marine Association, a video clip of the test was screened, and that was when people became aware of Tran and his submarine.

He had designed and built it from scratch.

It attracted the attention of government and military officials. The Ministry of Defense dispatched officials from the Military Institute of Boat Design to study the submarine and report back.

During the June test done in a pool, Dr, Le Ke Lam, former head of Nha Trang Naval Academy and head of HCM City Marine Association, and several other experts were also on hand.

The test was successful and he was asked to test the submarine in a swimming pool in a navy school in District 2. Again the test went well.

After a two-minute dive, Tran was asked to surface.

Until then no one had believed him. The first submarine 25 years ago had been built in Libya when he was working in Europe for an engineering and deep-diving firm.

"Everybody called me a mad man for trying to make a submarine," he says about his recent effort.

When he told them about his plans, his family, friends, and even local scientists laughed.

All aboard: Phan Boi Tran's small workshop in HCM City where he proudly shows off his submarine and talks about future plans. VNS Photo Van Dat

The vessel

Tran is confident that his vessel, 3.2 metres long and weighing a tonne, can operate at up to 70 metres depth.

The only thing he is unhappy about is that it can operate for only four hours because it runs on batteries.

It does not have weapons but has everything else found in other submarines.

"This is a stealth submarine, so it is completely invisible on the radar," he says.

"It is made from composites. The engine is coated with a special type of paint.

He has also been commissioned by the Navy to build for its training school in HCM City a larger submarine that can contain three members and operates on diesel and electricity.

It will have a top speed of 45 nautical miles per hour - the current one tops out at 15 - and be used for training.

Asked why he spent more than $10,000 from his pocket to build the submarine he tested, he says: "Without this, no one listened to me or believed me."

He rented a workshop in Binh Tan District's Binh Hung Hoa Ward and spent a year building the vessel.

His refrain is: "Submarines are known everywhere in the world, but remain a mystery in Viet Nam."

The vessel he made for Libya operated very well, he claims, though no further details are known because of the sensitive nature of the information.

He adds that Libya built several more submarines based on his prototype but he'd made no contacts with them ever since.

Asked how big a submarine he can make, he says: "There is no limit, even something as big as [the Russian] Kilo 636, which is more than 70 metres long.

Viet Nam is acquiring six of these vessels from Russia.

Young student

Tran, real name Phan Boi An, went to France in 1974 to study plastics and composites at Marseille University when he was 20.

He is a descendant of Phan Boi Chau, a mandarin under the Nguyen Dynasty and a pioneer of 20th century Vietnamese nationalism.

Not surprisingly, he says he wants to prove that Vietnamese can make submarines.

After university he worked for Comex, where he worked in several sections learning the basic principles of a submarine.

He returned to Viet Nam in 2006.

"History shows that Vietnamese are very creative," he says.

"We do not have much money to buy large well-equipped submarines, but we can make several mini submarines to protect the country's sovereignty." — VNS

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