Researchers Receive NSF Grant to Explore Opportunities for Extracting Marine Renewable Energy

by Yaffi Spodek | Monday, Jun 01, 2020
FAU's experimental ocean current turbine during offshore testing.

The Gulf Stream ocean currents off Florida’s East Coast represent a valuable untapped energy source, and researchers at the FAU College of Engineering and Computer Science are studying efficient ways to harness and extract this energy. 

James VanZwieten, Ph.D., assistant research professor in the Civil, Environmental and Geomatics Engineering department, has once again secured funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Marine Renewable Energy grant of $390,000.  Students will be exposed to multiple projects focused on the science and engineering challenges associated with producing electrical power from marine renewable energy resources, from ocean current-based electricity production, tidal power, or marine microbial fuel cells. 

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the Gulf Stream current contains an estimated 19 gigawatts of electric power, with 5.1 gigawatts available in the Florida Straits.  

“Those five gigawatts of power are equivalent to 20 percent of Florida’s electricity consumption,” said Dr. VanZwieten. “If we can feed this energy into the grid, we could power entire cities off of it.” 

The energy densities in the Gulf Stream are several times greater than most U.S. wind resources and 

would therefore be a valuable additional form of renewable energy. “While most cities are currently powered by nuclear and natural gas plants, and some solar energy, harvesting marine energy would allow us to add a clean renewable energy source to our portfolio,” said Dr. VanZwieten. “Our energy needs are growing, and we need to replace our power-generating capacity. We hope that we will be able to drive down costs of turbine production and contribute to sustainable energy solutions on a larger scale.”

The NSF REU grant spans three years, with a new group of students participating each summer. Typically, a cohort of 10 students work on separate projects under the training and mentorship of different professors during the months of July and August; however, this year, due to COVID-19, the team is remotely mentoring five students on marine renewable energy projects. 

The projects are grouped into three distinct areas: resource assessment, system design, and environmental impacts. The projects that focus on resource assessment will evaluate the amount of available energy and characterize the current to learn more about the ocean resources available for producing electrical power. Other projects are focused on designing autonomous underwater operating systems to extract this electrical power.  

Dr. VanZwieten’s project is a numerical modeling technique to predict how new turbine designs will perform in the open ocean. “We practice operating the turbine, like an aircraft simulator, for example, to predict the performance of a new turbine in the ocean,” he explained. “What we’re trying to discover is how to better design and operate a device for extracting this renewable power.”

Lastly, but certainly not least, several projects evaluate the environmental impact of extracting this power from the ocean. The REU team creates technologies to look at how animals interact with these turbines, and they use imaging software to take pictures in order to see what has been affected. “It could be marine mammals that we should be concerned about, or a species of sea turtle we need to be careful to protect,” Dr. VanZwieten said. “Therefore, Dr. Jeanette Wyneken [professor at FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science] is mentoring students through this grant who are working to map the behavior of sea turtles to observe where they travel and how deep they dive, which helps to see how frequently they will be in the specific areas where we hope to extract ocean energy.”  

The program will also provide students with a unique opportunity to study at FAU and work closely with an individual faculty member on a project. 

“This grant will expose undergraduate researchers to challenges we face in the environment and demonstrate how we are working towards a solution,” said Stella Batalama, Ph.D., dean of the FAU College of Engineering and Computer Science. “It will also allow students outside of FAU to collaborate with our outstanding faculty members and use our state-of-the-art laboratories and facilities while they conduct their research.”

“The students in the program are all very motivated, top engineering students,” Dr. VanZwieten added. “It’s inspiring to work with students who are so driven, dedicated to protecting our environment, and striving to make the world a better place.”

FAU Body Armor

Acoustic Doppler Current Profilers (ADCPs) being deployed in the Gulf Stream to measure the energy available in ocean currents