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26 June 2015
Marine test facility makes waves

Marine test facility makes waves

“I was like a boy playing on the seashore whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” The abridged Isaac Newton quote greets guests as they enter the FloWave Ocean Energy Research Facility at the University of Edinburgh. An anecdotal measure of the facility’s success is likely to be whether those words are as relevant to visitors upon their exit.

For the past 14 months, its 25 metre diameter tank has played host to marine energy devices from around the world. With 28 pumps, each of which can push around six tonnes of water per second, the tank is able to recreate complex – and highly random – wave conditions intrinsic to the North Sea as well as the Atlantic and Pacific oceans among others.

The 168 wave makers that line its wall double up as absorbers, which prevent unwelcome reflections that distort the sea state, while the ability to combine waves and current seeks to shine a light on the relatively poorly understood interaction between the two.

“It replicates the ocean in all its complexity all at the same time, rather than trying to break down each single little component and do one bit at a time and hope that they add up when you put them back together because, typically, they don’t,” says chief executive Stuart Brown. A high-speed camera allows researchers on site to “eyeball” models’ performance at 20,000 frames a second, while 3D motion capture systems promises a focus on the minutest detail.

As the only one of its kind in the world – Japan has a circular tank a quarter of the size, albeit one which is designed to test oil and gas platforms and doesn’t allow current to be reproduced – it has already been a testbed for devices coming out of the likes of Canada and Australia. The Japanese, who are looking to develop their own version of the European Marine Energy Centre based in Orkney, have sent over academics with clients likely to follow soon.

“When you draw the parallel with the aviation world, you don’t design an Airbus A380 on a computer, build it and then start selling tickets to New York,” says Brown. “You test all the sub systems and you do wind tunnel testing. Effectively, that’s what we’re doing here. We’re simulating the environment it is going to work in.”

About a dozen firms tested devices at FloWave in its first year of operation, though Brown insists the facility has the capacity to better that number. Costs to use the tank vary on a case-by-case basis, though clients can typically be looking at several thousand pounds per day to see how their device performs in the tank. It pales in comparison, however, to the cost of an error at sea, argues Brown.

“If you come and test here and bring your investors along and they see the device working in the tank and then they and the insurance underwriters see your device survive a 100-year storm event [a rainfall event that statistically has a one per cent chance of occurring] in the tank, and then you dial it up to a 500-year storm and it still survives, and a 1000-year storm and it still survives, and a 5000-year storm and it still survives, then that must make the financing decision a lot easier.”

Monday: “The main challenge going forward for the expansion of the industry is essentially there being available grid capacity for when the technologies are fully mature". Holyrood speaks to Scotrenewables Tidal Power, who are set to launch the largest and most powerful tidal turbine in the world.

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