Compact tidal generator could reduce the cost of producing electricity from flowing water

EPSRC press release

What happens if you run an electric motor backwards? That is exactly what researchers Dr Steve Turnock and Dr Suleiman Abu-Sharkh from the University of Southampton asked themselves after they had successfully built an electric motor for tethered underwater vehicles, using funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

The well-known answer to this question is that it stops being a motor and becomes a generator. Instead of using electricity to turn a propeller and drive the vehicle along, the flow of water turns the propeller, generating electricity. What's new about the Southampton design is its simplicity. "This is a compact design that does away with many of the moving parts found in current marine turbines. It's a new take on tidal energy generation," says Turnock.

Most current tidal stream generators are essentially wind turbines turned upside down and made to work underwater. They often include complex gearboxes and move the entire assembly to face the flow of the water. For example, they turn a half a circle as the tidal current reverses direction. Gears and moving parts require expensive maintenance, especially when they are used underwater. This pushes up the cost of running the turbines, a cost that is passed on to the consumers of the generated electricity. The Southampton design does not need to turn around because the design of its turbine blades means that they turn equally well, regardless of which way the water flows past them. The blades are also placed in a specially shaped housing that helps channel the water smoothly through the turbine.

Another beauty of the Southampton design is that everything is wrapped in a single package that can be prefabricated so there will be few on-site construction costs. "Just drop it into flowing water and it will start generating electricity. It will work best in fast flowing, shallow water," says Turnock, who foresees rows of these devices secured to sea floors and riverbeds.

The present prototype is just twenty-five centimetres across and the research team now plan to design a larger model with improved propeller blades that will further increase the efficiency of generating electricity. All being well, the team envisage the generator becoming commercially available within five years.

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Notes to editors:

Using funding from EPSRC and industry in the early 2000s, Abu-Sharkh, Turnock and their team created a novel tethered underwater vehicle thruster that used electricity to turn a ducted propeller, providing thrust to control the vehicle's position and speed. Tethered underwater vehicles are extensively used in the offshore industry for conducting underwater inspections and robotic manipulation. An overall propulsion system based on electrical thrusters is much smaller and lighter than the traditional hydraulic thrusters used in tethered underwater vehicles. So using the new ones reduces the weight of the vehicles, meaning that they require less power to move them and so are cheaper to run. The concept of an electricity generator sprang out of the fundamental research involved in the hydrodynamic and electrical design of the integrated electric thruster. These thrusters, manufactured under licence by the local Hampshire company TSL, are already in use around the world for a variety of underwater vehicle applications.

Funding for these tests (which build on the original EPSRC-funded work) was provided as part of the University of Southampton's School of Engineering Sciences' MSc programme in Maritime Engineering Science.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK's main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. The EPSRC invests more than £500 million a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC also actively promotes public awareness of science and engineering. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK. Website address for more information on EPSRC: www.epsrc.ac.uk/

For more information contact:

Dr Stephen Turnock, University of Southampton, tel: 02380 592488, e-mail: steve@ship.soton.ac.uk

Images are available from the EPSRC Press Office (see below for image details and suggested captions). Contact: Natasha Richardson, tel: 01793 444404, e-mail: natasha.richardson@epsrc.ac.uk

Picture info:

TurnockFig1.jpg: 'Computer generated image of the integrated electric generator'.
TurnockFig2.jpg:'The tested prototype'.
TurnockFig3.jpg: 'Testing the prototype in 60m towing tank'.
TurnockFig4.jpg:'That's all there is to it! The components of the integrated electric generator'.


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