Lockheed Martin, the company better known for airborne innovation, is developing a way to mine renewable energy that is literally just sitting there in the ocean, waiting for someone to reach out and grab it. The new system, a twist on ocean thermal energy conversion, is considered one of those “disruptive” technologies that could bring about a sea change (sorry, couldn’t resist) in the way ships, robots and other oceangoing equipment power their operations, in addition to providing a steady supply of energy for landlubbers.
Hidden Energy in the Ocean
According to Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Jim Pearce, ocean thermal conversion (OTEC) systems located in tropical waters could generate up to five terawatts of power without affecting the ambient temperature of the ocean. That would be five terawatts of clean, renewable “base” power. Like geothermal, OTEC systems operate continuously and could potentially provide a reliable base of supply to back up intermittent sources like wind and solar (a terawatt is a trillion watts, by the way).
Mining Ocean Thermal Energy
For now, the key to ocean thermal energy is locked away at about 3,000 feet below the surface. In the tropics, the temperature difference between that depth and the surface is about 20 degrees Celsius. The OTEC system would use this naturally available supply of warm and cold water to run a power plant based on Rankine engine technology. Also known as Schoell engines, Rankine engines are external combustion engines in which a piston is moved by cycles of heat and cold.
Corrosion is the Rub for OTEC
One obstacle in the path of a commercially viable, large scale OTEC plant is the cost of a heat exchanger needed to intensify the energy of the warm surface water. Last month, Lockheed shipped a new 20-foot tall heat exchanger to Hawaii for a six month round of testing. The exchanger was constructed using a process called friction stir welding to reduce corrosion. The process, which involves heating metal to a plastic state rather than melting it, has been used successfully on ships and spacecraft. This is its first use on an ocean-going heat exchanger. With another new twist – the use of graphite foam to boost the
Thank You, U.S. Navy
As regular readers of CleanTechnica could probably guess, Lockheed’s OTEC project is yet another example of the U.S. Department of Defense pursuing alternative energy sources under the Obama Administration. Lockheed has been working on the technology since the 1970′s but things really took off after 2009 when the U.S. Naval Facilities Engineering Command awarded Lockheed Martin $12.5 million to develop a pilot plant. The Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory is also a collaborator on the project.
Image: Courtesy of Lockheed Martin via ORNL.
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Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.