The world’s most ancient shark—a sleepy, near-blind creature called the Greenland shark—eluded scientists until 2018 when they finally caught the large fish on camera. Did you know these oceanic blind spots are more common than not? About 80% of the ocean is still a mystery, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This vast, unmapped territory is home to an unknown number of species—about 91% of which are unclassified.
Now, a bright yellow device called the SeaRAY autonomous offshore power system (or SeaRAY AOPS) could help scientists study the unmapped ocean and, at the same time, protect its mysterious species from more pollutants. The small, portable device makes clean energy from the motion of the ocean’s waves and collects and sends data, like an oceanic cell tower. Although many previous marine energy systems only produced small amounts of power, the SeaRAY AOPS can generate between 100 watts and 20 kilowatts—enough energy to power anything from a seafloor data-gathering system to a medium-sized subsea vehicle or surface vessel.
Soon, after the SeaRAY’s first six-month sea trial in Hawaii, the device could power offshore fish farms, shipping, desalination devices for remote communities and disaster-recovery situations, or even deep sea robotic fish that can help researchers study marine wildlife, like the elusive Greenland shark.
“Water, water, everywhere,” said C-Power’s CEO Reenst Lesemann in a nod to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a poem about a ship’s crew dying of thirst while surrounded by endless salt water. For the modern mariner, the SeaRAY ensures that offshore operations won’t suffer thirst—for power, at least.
To conserve our oceans and power the blue ocean economy, the U.S. Department of Energy Water Power Technologies Office invests in carbon-free marine energy devices, like C-Power’s SeaRAY AOPS. C-Power designed the SeaRAY’s wave energy converter, which uses two undulating side floats to transform the ocean’s motion into energy. To make the SeaRAY “smart,” researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) gave it brains: a novel field data collection, storage, and transmission system, called Modular Ocean Data Acquisition (MODAQ), that researchers can also use to control the SeaRAY from anywhere in the world.
The first SeaRAY device was just a mooring line and an anchor. Now, outfitted with GPS, 4G, Wi-Fi, and cloud data storage, the latest SeaRAY is smarter than most smartphones.
When the SeaRAY surfs the waves at the U.S. Navy Wave Energy Test Site in Hawaii, it won’t be alone. Project partners, like BioSonics, will bring their sea-faring technologies to see just how much the SeaRAY can power. BioSonics’ subsea environmental monitoring system will search for two underwater dangers: human intruders (for defense) and noise pollution that can disrupt or even injure marine mammals. Through the Triton Initiative with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, BioSonics’ monitoring system will also collect data on how marine energy devices (like the SeaRAY) impact electromagnetic fields, marine animal interactions, and marine habitats. That way, the SeaRAY can protect the global environmental with its clean, ocean-resourced energy and guard local environments, too.
Saab, a world leader in electric underwater robotics, will pair the SeaRAY with its Sabertooth autonomous underwater vehicle, which is essentially a sea drone. In the first attempt to power the surfboard-sized Sabertooth with 100% renewable energy, the vehicle will zoom around the ocean before docking at the SeaRAY to charge and deposit data.
“With Saab,” said Lesemann, “we can prove that you don't need that expensive, complex, carbon-intensive vessel to babysit up top. For ocean-going vessels, on an annual basis, that ship can produce about 7,000 cars’ worth of carbon dioxide.”
The Sabertooth might not need a babysitter, but an environmental sensor from another partner—the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration—will need a ride. The sensor will hitch one from the Sabertooth, so it can zoom around the deep and collect data on zooplankton, which are a cornerstone of the marine food chain and good indicators of ocean pollution levels.
C-Power made sure the SeaRAY causes minimal pollution either on the water or getting there. The company designed its device to be easily transportable in a standard shipping container. Once in Hawaii, a small boat will tow it to the testing spot. “You can deploy it,” said Lesemann, “with a lightly crewed vessel, with minimal expense and low carbon emissions.”
Before the SeaRAY shipped out, NREL’s team of mechanical engineers put the device through rigorous tests to make sure it could handle volatile ocean conditions. “The ocean is a very harsh environment for a machine to operate reliably in,” said Scott Lambert, a mechanical engineer at NREL who designed the SeaRAY’s test rig—a type of dynamometer—from scratch. Unlike other dynamometers, which are typically used to stress-test wind turbine generators, Lambert’s new hydraulic dynamometer switches direction faster, simulating the ocean’s erratic tides and waves, to test the SeaRAY’s surfing skills.
The NREL engineers also ensured that the SeaRAY’s brains (MODAQ) and seafloor energy storage systems worked as intended.
“We’re essentially building a satellite,” said Andrew Simms, a research technician at NREL. “Our challenges in Hawaii are vast. The ocean is corrosive. It’s scary. It’s harsh. And we wanted to make sure everything was set before we took it offshore.”
Data from the Hawaii sea trial will not only confirm how well the SeaRAY AOPS can power offshore industries, but also how the team can make the SeaRAY even smaller, lighter, more efficient, and more adaptable for a wider range of applications.
Besides providing clean power for a booming ocean economy, the SeaRAY could one day power scientific expeditions, helping to unveil the 80% of ocean life that remains a mystery. Those missions need clean power—and fast. Warming oceans will disrupt ecosystems and cause extinctions of creatures that might be critical to ocean health or host vital medicinal chemicals. The elusive and ancient Greenland shark might lose its Arctic habitat before scientists can catch another glimpse of the strange giants.
Without clean energy solutions like the SeaRAY AOPS, far more marine wildlife oddities could be lost to time.