Floating platforms offer solar energy potential
Ocean buoyancy systems could provide innovative, renewable power solution
Solar panels the size of football pitches floating on the ocean surface could provide an innovative solution to the world's increasing need for clean, renewable energy.
Engineers at the Vienna University of Technology (TU Wien) in Austria have developed a maritime floating energy-producing platform which offers tremendous potential as ocean-based solar power stations.
Heliofloat is an open-bottom, flexible floating structure, a lightweight buoyancy unit that can be used to build platforms up to 100 metres (330 feet) long which can remain firmly in place even during stormy weather and rough sea conditions. The flotation platforms could host either photovoltaic panels or parabolic troughs. The technology enables the solar panels to roll with the sea swells to produce electricity.
The Vienna research team is confident that replacing conventional floats with flexible, open-bottomed cylinders means the platform can cope with heavy sea conditions - potentially providing offshore production companies with a solar solution to help meet ever-growing global energy needs. The technology developers are now in talks with potential collaborative partners and investors to develop the solar platform concept on a large scale.
"The key to this is that Heliofloat is supported by open flotation devices," says Professor Markus Haider from the Institute for Energy Systems and Thermodynamics. "Were a platform to be simply mounted onto air-filled, closed containers, the design of the construction would have to be inefficiently heavy and robust in order to be able to withstand heavy seas."
The Heliofloat buoyancy units are similar to downward-facing barrels and made from a soft, flexible material that floats on water. Air is contained in the upper section which enables the barrels to float. The air column over the water acts as a shock absorber and the flexible side walls of the 'barrels' absorb only small, horizontal forces.
The floating solar energy platform is supported by these downward-facing open air tanks positioned below a large, even floor space. Waves rise and fall under the Heliofloat without any significant impact on the platform itself, enabling the lightweight construction to float steadily just above the ocean surface.
Designers say closed or rigid air cushions could not be used with the platform construction because they would absorb wave energy to a much greater extent which would cause the platform to sway violently and break.
Currently, engineers at TU Wien have developed concepts to harness solar power using photovoltaic panels and parabolically-shaped mirrored troughs although this is just the start and further applications and potential ocean-based uses are being considered.
"Heliofloat platforms offer new possibilities for desalination plants and biomass extraction processes for salt water," says Dr Roland Eisl, a TU alumnus and director of the start-up Heliofloat company. "In hot countries Heliofloat platforms could be used to protect lakes against drying up." The floating platforms could also have a useful role in aquafarming applications - and there is the suggestion that, one day, even homes could be built on them too.
A prototype floating model measuring one square metre was unveiled last week at the Hannover Messe trade fair in Germany which focused on sustainable energy innovations and emerging integrated energy system solutions.