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Burbo Bank Wind Farm Now Fully Operational
(Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
LIVERPOOL, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 12: A maintenance boat works next to the turbines of the new Burbo Bank offshore wind farm in the mouth of the River Mersey on May 12, 2008, in Liverpool, England. The Burbo Bank Offshore Wind Farm comprises 25 wind turbines. It is situated on the Burbo Flats in Liverpool Bay at the entrance to the River Mersey, approximately 6.4km (4.0 miles) from the Sefton coastline and 7.2km (4.5 miles) from North Wirral. The wind farm is capable of generating up to 90MW (megawatts) of clean, environmentally sustainable electricity. This is enough power for approximately 80,000 homes. The site is run by Danish energy company Dong Energy.

It sounds like science fiction: massive solar power stations that float, beaming vast electricity quantities to Earth. And the idea, first created in the 1920s by the Russian physicist, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, was primarily an influence for writers for a long time.

In translating the idea into practice, scientists are making significant strides. A slender metal tube was lowered into the Pacific Ocean off the Hawaiian coast by Yi Chao and a tiny team of researchers. Life in the United States fell to a standstill just a few weeks before the pandemic.

After almost two decades, Chao quit the space agency as an oceanographer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to sell a seafaring generator that would tap the infinite thermal resources stored in the world's oceans. Just near his old NASA office in Pasadena, his venture, Seatrec, is located. Still, Chao frequently visits Hawaii to evaluate hardware in the calm, blue waters in the area.

How Seatrec Floating Power Stations Works

Chao and his team sent two of the company's generators on multiple dives to 3,000 feet below the sea over three weeks last February while tied to a profiling float. It was only the third time that oceanographers had ever used Seatrec SL1 in the sea for energy storage modules. The submersible generators were moving hundreds of miles lower than they had on prior dives. But they have also produced adequate energy to fuel several kinds of research instruments deployed by oceanographers. It has been an unequivocal achievement.

Submersible sensor-laden testing devices called profiling floats are planned to be connected to the SL1. During brief trips as much as a mile under the Earth, these instruments gather data. They broadcast the detail to a satellite as they surface from the depths. Today, as part of a multinational initiative named Argo, thousands of profile floats are drifting across Earth's seas. They remain the strongest instrument scientists have for remotely observing the upper ocean, but their energy sources significantly restrict their life cycle and data collection.

All the floats operate the lithium-ion batteries in the Argo fleet, usually only good for around five years or a few hundred dives. How much they will dive is restricted by their battery reliance; a normal float does so about in 10 days. And a float is generally discarded until its battery fails, so the expense of collecting it is greater than the cost of the unit itself. One float will also cost as much as a new vehicle, which makes them pricey jetsam parts.

Every charging cycle tops it off with only half the capacity of a single AA alkaline battery, but that is more than enough to satisfy the specifications of the low-powered sensors usually used on profiling floats. Seatrec's ocean generator does not generate a lot of energy. Chao says it is sufficient to raise the generator's capacity or even daisy-chain tiny sizes together for devices that need more fuel. Floats are often designed to function in any ocean setting, whether stuck in Arctic ice floes or swimming in the tropics with sharks. Tweaking their waxy guts' composition is what it takes to fit them to various regions since they solidify and melt at the right temperatures.

Chao hopes that the Seatrec ocean generator will execute a pledge that the famous oceanographers Douglas Webb and Henry Stommel first conceptualized in the 1980s. They imagined a globe-spanning array of Slocum gliders named missile-shaped submarine exploration robots that would navigate the oceans with the same agility, independence, and durability that we have come to know from the robots sent by NASA to explore other worlds. Such gliders will be driven by submerged temperature variations, much like Seatrec's SL1.

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