How can we generate more power from renewable sources without using massive plots of land for solar and wind farms? Go fly a kite. According to David Olinger, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), tethered underwater kites could be used to generate large amounts of electricity by harnessing the power of ocean waves and currents. Olinger recently received a three-year, $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop this technology, and work is scheduled to begin in January.

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According to Olinger, deep see currents are rife with unharvested kinetic energy. Even though we can’t see them, these currents are latent energy sources that could be tapped by the kites Olinger wants to develop.

“Unseen under the waves, winding along coastlines and streaming through underwater channels, there are countless ocean currents and tidal flows that bristle with kinetic energy,” Olinger said in a WPI press release. “And just as wind turbines can convert moving air into electricity, there is the potential to transform these virtually untapped liquid ‘breezes’ into vast amounts of power. For example, it has been estimated that the potential power from the Florida Current, which flows from the Gulf of Mexico into the Atlantic Ocean, is 20 gigawatts—equivalent to about 10 nuclear power plants.”

Which would your rather have stationed around the coastline – a bunch of unseen, virtually harmless underwater kits, or a cluster of nuclear power plants? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Olinger and his team of graduate students plan to use the grant money to develop “computational models that can predict trajectories and power output for kites of different sizes and kite tethers of different lengths. The models can be used to design kites that can fly in stable, high-speed figure-eight patterns under changing wind conditions,” states the release.

A major advantage of the underwater kites over traditional wave harvesting technology is that they’ll be substantially cheaper to install, while generating as much as 64 times more power than a comparably sized stationary turbine.



Images via christinehawks and WPI/David Olinger