Energy

Giant wave-riding platform design puts solar power out to sea

Giant wave-riding platform des...
The solar panels use a giant platform that remains steady in rough seas
The solar panels use a giant platform that remains steady in rough seas
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The solar panels use a giant platform that remains steady in rough seas
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The solar panels use a giant platform that remains steady in rough seas
The new technology could be used to build solar farms at sea
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The new technology could be used to build solar farms at sea
Professor Markus Haider
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Professor Markus Haider
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Sea-based wind farms are becoming a common sight in many parts of the world, but why not floating solar power stations? Engineers at the Vienna University of Technology foresee a future where platforms 100 m (330 ft) long and covered with solar panels float on even heavy seas thanks to a new floatation system called Heliofloat. Still under development, Heliofloat uses flexible, open-bottom floats that are capable of standing up to rough seas that would destroy such a platform sitting on conventional tanks.

Solar energy has a great potential for helping solve the world's energy problems, but among the factors hindering its general application is that suitable land is not always available. Relocating panels offshore could make for installations of incredible size and generating potential, but the seas isn't always a placid place. Even relatively calm areas can suddenly become tempests with waves that can pound a floating platform to kindling in a matter of minutes.

Needless to say, such a potential battering makes sea-based solar plants a very risky investment, but the TU Wien team claims that its Heliofloat system can support lightweight platforms the size of football fields that are stable even in heavy seas – so stable that they can be home to installations of photovoltaic panels or parabolic mirror troughs. It does this by swapping out conventional floats with flexible, open-bottomed cylinders that dampen rather than absorb wave energy.

The new technology could be used to build solar farms at sea
The new technology could be used to build solar farms at sea

"The key to this, is that Heliofloat is supported by open floatation devices," says Markus Haider of the Institute for Energy Systems and Thermodynamics. "Were a platform to be simply mounted onto air-filled, closed containers, the design of the construction would have to be inefficiently heavy and robust in order to be able to withstand heavy waves."

In practice, the Heliofloat platform rests on a series of barrels made of a soft, flexible material that are open to the sea at the bottom like the ballast tanks on a submarine. Air is trapped inside the floats and compressed by water pressure to act as a shock absorber. Meanwhile, the sides of the barrel flex as the waves strike them, so they absorb less energy than hard floats. Taken together they are designed to allow the platform to ride out rough seas while remaining stable.

Through an eponymous spinoff company, the TU Wien team is exploring other applications for the Heliofloat technology as it seeks partners and investors. These applications include desalination plants, biomass extraction, protection of lakes form evaporation without interfering with marine life, aquafarming, recreation, and possibly even residential housing.

A prototype of Heliofloat is on display at the Hannover Messe trade fair.

Source: TU Wien

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13 comments
Schreibtribe
Looks like a really nice habitat for seabirds to roost, make nests, poop on, etc. But of course they've thought of that!
EthanLipman
This would make sense after every rooftop was covered with Solar PV and solar thermal and every parking lot had a shade structure topped with solar PV. Distance between power plant and power consumption matters, so putting a power plant from the load doesn't make a whole lot of sense unless you are out of better options.
olavn
There should be wave power generators at the hinges of this float, and a windmill on top of it - so that the power cable, maintainance crew etc. are efficiently utilized.
Peter Kelly
This sounds like a wonderful idea, but I fear the problems have been far underestimated and would be insurmountable.
Even if the 'wildlife' issue Schreibtribe mentioned isn't too troublesome (it would be!), there would be significant losses caused by spray and dried salt residue, let alone the corrosive effects.
Far more important, though, is this flippant belief that such pontoons could withstand rough conditions. Just how rough are we talking about? Sorry, but despite the best efforts I suspect such a construction would be smashed to bits by the first winter storm.
Bob Flint
Maybe in warm climates in a secluded bay, out in the ocean in cold weather with nature's wrath and ice, ship traffic, cable anchors, & getting the power into land...
Douglas Bennett Rogers
This is the ideal place for photovoltaics. They have 2% reflectivity, like water and so don't change the Earth's albedo. The required cooling water is right there. The Sargasso Sea is right on the equator and is where ships were becalmed. Plenty of biomass is available. Direct sea shipping is available. As in earlier times, population would migrate to an area of cheap energy. This is very telling, as reguards alternative energy, in that it doesn't support population migration.
Paul Robertson
The flotation system is an interesting wave harnessing power generation system all by itself if the continual change in pressures were scavenged. 24/7 as well.
Stephen N Russell
Test off Catalina Island So CA, HI, San Juan Islands, WA, Hamptons LI NY, PR, Fiji, India, Vietnam, Taiwan. Problem: seabird poop on solar cells, water damage, salt spray, etc.
OskarKirsten
As clever as some things are on this proposal, I can't help but wonder about landlocked Austrian engineers designing ocean going structures. I agree with Peter Kelly below. The inefficiencies of salt masks, corrosion, transmission issues and assumed wildlife refuge, there needs to be more detailed thought. I speak as a retired oceanographic engineer with 45 years going to sea. I would love to see this succeed after mundane but very influential problems are solved.
christopher
Nutty. 10x more energy flows under this 24/7 (currents), and like everyone says, sticking these where they'll surely get trashed (birds, brine, barnicles, boats, burglars, ...) and a long way from where they're needed makes no sense.