New Delhi: US defence firm Lockheed Martin Corp. wants to acquire from India some technologies that help in generating electricity from the ocean, a government official said.
The company is in early-stage talks with the government for this, he said on condition of anonymity.
Clean energy: Lockheed Martin Corp. headquarters in Maryland, US. The firm plans to set up a 10MW power plant in Hawaii, US, that produces power by a method called ocean thermal energy conversion. Ken Cedeno / Bloomberg
Lockheed Martin, which builds fighter planes and satellites, plans to set up a 10MW power plant in Hawaii, US, that produces power by a method called ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC).
Unlike in a conventional power plant, where fuel is burnt to generate heat, push turbines and generate electricity, the OTEC method uses the temperature difference between warm water at the surface and the cold water in deep ocean to generate steam in a specially designed vacuum chamber, that can then power an electric generator.
Though the underlying principle sounds simple, realizing it in practice is an engineering brick wall; the biggest hurdle is designing pipes that can plumb water from as low as 1km below the sea level, resist its turbidity, last for years and still be cheap enough for practical use. This is where India comes in.
The National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT), a Chennai-based research organization under the earth sciences ministry, has already designed pipes for dredging cold water.
At a barge off the Chennai coast, NIOT has been operating a 1mld (million litres per day) desalination plant—which removes excess salts from water—since 2006, that it says produces fresh water that is 100 times purer than bottled mineral water at 6 paise a litre, using the differential temperature of the ocean.
“We, too, have designed a pipe for the same (dredging cold water) and our discussions with Lockheed Martin were largely on whether they could use our design for their (Hawaii) project,” said the official. “We haven’t yet discussed technology transfer. It’s still an early-stage discussion.”
Though NIOT’s research attempt was widely publicized in 2006 by the government, it is yet to find a suitor from the private sector to commercialize this desalination technology.
Science minister Kapil Sibal had earlier said the government had proven the efficacy of the technology and it was the private sector’s job to use it. However, last year, the government said it will set aside Rs200 crore to build three more demonstration plants of 100 times the capacity of the 1MLD plant to prove the system’s efficacy.
“NIOT’s initial plans were to design a system that can produce electricity (like Lockheed’s) but we still haven’t been able to realize it,” the official said. “So we thought, tweak the plant and have it produce potable water.”
An email to Lockheed Martin for comment sent last Tuesday remained unanswered.
Amid fluctuating oil prices and a clamour to shift to renewable sources of energy, such as solar, wind and ocean, to cap greenhouse gas emissions, governments across the world have renewed funding for unconventional research techniques to harness energy.
Last year, Lockheed got a $600,000 (about Rs3 crore) grant from the US department of energy for its Hawaii project.
“Such technologies are still 20-30 years away,” said Shivendra Kumar, a professor of naval engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati.
“Even if pipes are available, several hurdles such as transferring the produced electricity to the grid will remain,” Kumar added.