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Underwater Kites Can Harness Ocean Currents to Create Clean Energy

If researchers were to figure out how to harness the power of the currents, there is ample energy to be had

Underwater kite design by Minesto. Photo: Minesto

Underneath the ocean surface, kites would be free to drift with the breeze-like current, just like their airborne brethren do on the wind. Researchers and companies have sought to harness the potential power of ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream, usually with underwater turbines, which look and behave like underwater wind mills. But now some groups are better on a different technology, the underwater kite.

There’s a reason clean energy researchers are so interested in the ocean: “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,” mechanical engineer David Olinger, who just received a grant to build the kites, said in a release. The kites’ ability to move in figure-eight motions–which causes it to zip through the water several time faster than the current itself–will amplify the water’s energy output, Olinger says.

The idea of energy-generating kites has been floated above ground, too. Olinger’s worked on that technology, too, and  has already developed algorithms that plot the most energetically efficient position for the kites based on wind (or current), kite location and tether length. He’ll apply those models to the underwater kites, which will have rigid metal wings to catch the current and underwater turbines to harness that energy. Kite construction will begin in January.

Olinger is not the only one working on underwater kites. The Swedish company Minesoto is also exploring designs for such contraptions, with a few key differences. Discovery News explains:

Minesto plans to tether the kites to the ocean floor while Olinger’s group would attach them to a floating system. Each Minesto’s kite also has a wind turbine attached while Olinger will look at potentially removing the turbine and placing the electrical generator on the floating platform instead.

Regardless of which design comes out ahead, if researchers were to figure out how to harness the power of the currents, there is indeed ample energy to be had. Here’s an overview of the world’s currents, from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center*:

*This post had wrongly attributed this video to Minesoto. We apologize for the error.

More from Smithsonian.com:

New Ways to Live Energy Efficient 
Untapped Reserves: Energy Innovation

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