Lightweight solar platforms stay steady on ocean waves

I have written about a few different floating solar projects recently. These floating platform-based power plants are ideal for countries that don't have much land to spare for large solar farms. They can be built over ponds, lakes and reservoirs and help to prevent water evaporation and algae overgrowth. Floating solar panels seem to be catching on, but there is one place for which they haven't seemed well-suited: the ocean.

As with any technology that dares to reside in the rough environment of the sea -- offshore wind turbines, wave power buoys, etc. -- building something that is both tough enough to withstand harsh conditions and light and flexible enough to be effective (and not totally cost-prohibitive) is very tricky.

Researchers at the Vienna University of Technology think they have developed just the right combo with their Heliofloat concept. These floating solar platforms meant for any body of water including the ocean, are lightweight and flexible enough to bob with the waves while remaining steady on the surface, even in rough weather.

heliofloat 2© Vienna University of Technology

The key to this, the researchers say, is that the bottom is supported with open floatation devices as opposed to closed ones. "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 waves," said explains Professor Markus Haider, from the Institute for Energy Systems and Thermodynamics.

The floats look like upside-down barrels made out of a flexible material. The barrels create a column of air over the water that allows the platform to float and also acts as a shock absorber, while the soft material of the barrels absorb small, horizontal forces.

The result of this is that the waves rise and fall beneath the platform while the platform itself stays steady above the water. A closed air floatation device would absorb so much of the wave energy that the platform would ultimately break.

The researchers believe that this design would allow floating solar installations the size of football fields to grace the coast of countries that don't have the land to spare for large solar power projects or over lakes where water evaporation is a problem. In addition, the Heliofloats could be used in sea water desalination plants in areas that need more clean water.

A very small-scale prototype will be unveiled at the Hannover Messe trade fair and the researchers are in discussions with investors to produce large-scale versions.

Tags: Oceans | Solar Power | Solar Technology | Technology

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