The Ocean is Coming to Colorado – Accelerating New Ocean Energy Technologies

By 2050, our oceans could contain more plastic than fish. Other, more benign man-made inventions (like this ocean broom named Jenny) help clean up the mess, but these sweepers need a source of power – preferably clean, like, say, the ocean itself.

NREL’s new wave tank, shown here without its rolling waves, could help accelerate the development of commercially viable marine energy technologies to deliver clean energy from oceans and rivers to communities across the United States. Photo by Joe DelNero, NREL

Ocean energy, also known as marine energy, is renewable energy generated from the movement of ocean waves, currents and tides. Soon, ocean energy could power Jenny as well as marine robots used in marine research, buoys that monitor dangerous tropical storms, the booming offshore industries that make up the blue economy, and possibly part of the grid. American electric. But no marine energy technology has yet achieved commercial success.

This is where the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) comes in. At the lab’s Flatirons campus, NREL researchers are helping to move marine energy prototypes from abstract concept to market. And the lab just installed a new tool that fills a critical gap in that nut soup support.

“There was still a big piece missing,” said Rebecca Fao, a research engineer with NREL’s hydropower technology group. “We still couldn’t fully mimic the conditions these devices will experience when they go to sea.”

Now they can – well, almost. With funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Water Power Technologies, Fao and his team installed their first wave reservoir in the spring of 2022. The reservoir, coupled with a motion platform planned for March 2023 , “brings the ocean to Colorado,” Fao said.

Together, the two tools can help accelerate the development of ocean-related technologies, including marine energy devices as well as offshore wind turbines and floating solar panels, saving developers time, money and reduce risk when developing the renewable energy technologies needed to build a 100% clean energy future.

Previously, ocean energy companies like C-Power traveled to Colorado to get expert analysis from NREL, for example, on how much power their devices could produce and how they could manage the big volatile waves of the ocean. But once their prototypes were built, these teams headed for a wave tank or headed straight for the ocean, which can be a costly and risky gamble. “If something goes wrong during your deployment, it will be very difficult to go and fix it,” Fao said. “A lot of times you can’t fix it.”

Now, with a wave tank available in-house, developers can stay put and try multiple small-scale designs early on, tweak them as they go, or test the airworthiness of their instrumentation systems. This rapid prototyping speeds up the development process and also saves developers money.

True to its name, a wave tank is a shallow chamber used to create waves. NREL’s is about 45 feet long – about the length of three cars parked in a row – 8 feet wide and just over 4 feet deep. Although it’s nowhere near the size of the world’s largest wave tank, used to study tsunamis, it’s large enough to test miniaturized wave energy prototypes. The tank produces waves as high as 8 inches, which travel at varying speeds, and because one side is glass, researchers can also observe what’s happening below the water’s surface. This is important for evaluating mooring systems, which attach certain marine energy devices to the ocean floor.

On its own, the wave tank is a useful validation tool at an early stage. But that’s just one member of the vast machinery available at the Flatirons Campus. Just by crossing the street, NREL researchers and industry partners can test new ideas — quickly — to see which technologies hold the most promise. On a single campus, a developer can test their design through theoretical modeling before fabricating and testing a small-scale prototype and even preparing a full-scale device for the open ocean.

In 2023, NREL researchers will install a motion platform, which, true to its name, is a platform that simulates motion — in this case, ocean motion. The tool, which can support approximately 22,000 pounds (the weight equivalent of more than five mid-size cars) and can mimic wave motions up to approximately 8 feet, will provide a controlled environment in which to test dynamic behavior. even larger ships. energy prototypes as well as scale offshore wind turbines and floating solar panels. Because the tool can mimic a wider range of ocean motions and serve more technologies, it will be an additional puzzle piece added to NREL’s theory-ocean support.

“Our goal,” Fao said, “is to conduct end-to-end testing of these devices before they go out into open waters. Our new wave tank and motion platform will make this validation possible at one place: NREL.”

Interested in taking advantage of NREL’s end-to-end testing capabilities? See what else you can dolearn more about the wave tank and movement platformand get the latest information on NREL facilities when you sign up for the NREL Hydropower Newsletter.

By Caitlin McDermott-Murphy

Article published with the kind permission of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.


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