At first glance, the sloshing basin of water looks like an oversized swimming pool. But at 240 feet wide and 360 feet long, the U.S. Navy’s Maneuvering and Seakeeping Basin, or MASK, is no ordinary pool. It holds 12 million gallons of water, enough to fill twenty Olympic-sized swimming pools, making it one of the largest wave pools in the world. Given its immense volume, MASK is often referred to as the Navy’s indoor ocean.
(Video Credit: Department of Defense).
Located in Carderock, Maryland, a three-hour drive from the real ocean, researchers use MASK to test scale models of ships and other ocean devices to predict how they will fare in open water. The pool’s 216 finger-like paddles rhythmically agitate the water to create different types of waves, allowing researchers to simulate a variety of ocean conditions.
In addition to testing models of Navy vessels, MASK’s mock ocean has been used to test new technologies designed to harness power from the sea. Nine finalists from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Wave Energy Prize used MASK to test scale models of wave energy converters, devices that may someday transform wave energy into electricity on a commercial scale. The Wave Energy Prize, a 20-month competition to design efficient and scalable wave energy devices, seeks to jumpstart private sector innovation in the wave energy industry. Testing wave energy converters in the field is logistically challenging and expensive, making MASK an ideal location for the competition.
Finalists from Oregon, California, and Washington State, teams from Rhode Island, North Carolina, and Maine pursued the Wave Energy Prize: $1.5 million to help turn their wave energy prototypes into power generating machines. The Department of Energy announced AquaHarmonics, a team of engineers from Portland, Oregon, as the winners of the Wave Energy Prize in November, 2016. California-based teams CalWave Power Technologies and Waveswing America claimed the second and third place prizes of $500,000 and $250,000 respectively to further develop their prototypes.
Harnessing the motion of waves and tides along U.S. coasts using buoys and turbines could generate as much as 1,170 terawatt hours of electricity each year, roughly one third of the country’s energy usage. But today, this massive reservoir of potential energy remains largely untapped. Harsh waves, corrosive salt, inefficient generators, and concerns over impacts to marine life are all potential hurdles to commercial scale development of wave and tidal power.
However, the fledgling industry is beginning to make waves. In 2015, the U.S. Navy installed the first buoys capable of generating electricity from wave action in U.S. waters off the coast of Oahu, Hawaii. The 50-foot-tall devices, developed by Northwest Energy Innovations, will be connected to the electrical grid and operate for a one-year trial period. The U.S. Department of Energy is providing $10 million in funding to test wave energy devices in Hawaii over the next two years.
By incentivizing people to develop commercially viable renewable technologies, initiatives like the Wave Energy Prize hold the potential to reduce the cost of wave and tidal power. Similar investments in wind and solar technologies reduced costs, allowing promising technologies to become commercially viable. Government and private sector investments in wave, tidal, and other emerging renewable ocean-based technologies will help to generate economic opportunities, diversify the nation’s energy portfolio, combat climate change, and establish the United States as an international alternative energy leader.
Published in March, 2017, by the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative.