A consortium of Florida universities is about to embark on a bold and ambitious program aimed at realizing an old and elusive goal -- tapping into the restless energy of the world's oceans.
"We're sitting on the edge of what could be a major energy resource," said Susan Skemp, a mechanical engineer who directs the Center for Ocean Energy Technology at Florida Atlantic University, the epicenter of the effort.
About eight billion gallons of sea water flow past the southern tip of Florida every minute as part of the Gulf Stream, a global wonder that has long mystified oceanographers. This underwater river dwarfs all the rivers of the world combined, transporting more than 30 times the total freshwater flow in rivers around the globe.
That amazing force has tantalized scientists for decades, because if some way could be found to tap into ocean currents, a clean, inexhaustible source of energy could power our cities without adding to atmospheric gases that are changing the planet's climate in potentially catastrophic ways.
Florida officials are on record saying that the Gulf Stream could supply all the electricity the state needs, while helping to reduce those greenhouse gases. It's kind of a personal issue for Florida. Some experts believe Miami, which is just a few miles from the heart of the Gulf Stream, could be underwater by the end of this century because of rising seas due to global warming.
At this point, only one major problem looms on the horizon. Nobody is sure it will work.
"It's pretty much an untapped resource, and that includes knowledge," said Skemp, a past president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. "Some work on ocean currents has been done by a number of agencies and universities, but it's old information. So, when you are looking at tapping the ocean current today, there's a lot of long-term implications."
Within about a month, the researchers expect to begin placing a series of temporary sensors off the coast of south Florida, where the Gulf Stream passes through the Florida Straits between the coastline and the Bahamas. That's a basic science effort to understand the ecology and environment, as well as the potential resource.
That could be followed, possibly as early as next year, with a pilot program consisting of a three-bladed turbine, about 10 feet in diameter. That would still be a temporary research facility, but if it works without "unacceptable" losses of wildlife, it could be followed by turbines that would generate electricity that could be piped ashore.
That may sound basic, considering the growing number of similar turbines in wind farms across the country, but it's new territory in the ocean.
"No turbine has been deployed offshore in the Gulf Stream for more than a few hours and thus, little, if any, knowledge exists about in-situ performance of the technology," according to a description of the project on the center's Web page.
Skemp emphasizes that the project will move forward cautiously, because "we have to understand the migratory direction of fish and mammals and sea turtles. We're looking for the big picture. We have to understand the environment to make informed decisions."