How two budding engineers expertly designed a tidal energy turbine

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The turbine will collect and share data to advance our understanding of tidal energy

Driving innovation in marine energy requires extracurricular activities: turning wrenches on a barge, conducting trials in a wave pool, and discussing ideas with a supportive team.

This all appeals to University of New Hampshire (UNH) graduate students Parviz Sedigh and Mason Bichanich because it represents progress toward creating their first real-world device, a hydrokinetic turbine that will teach the world about tidal energy.

Before implementing this project, none of the students had seen their work in water. However, in collaboration with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Sandia National Laboratories, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), and with financial support from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Hydropower Technologies, they have designed an axial-flow tidal turbine that is fully instrumented for data collection at the mouth of the Piscataqua River in New England.

Project engineer Ken Lannammen, Bichanich and Sedigh (left to right) test turbine components on the UNH Turbine Deployment Platform. Photo by Jon Hunt, UNH

Using NREL’s Modular Ocean Data Acquisition (MODAQ) setup, their turbine will provide highly useful data for the emerging tidal energy field, a clean energy source with enough technical potential to power up to 21 million homes in the United States. The country can’t harness all this power – some of it must be reserved for fishermen, boaters and other water inhabitants – but even a small portion of it could go a long way to helping the United States meet its clean energy goals.

Their 25-kilowatt turbine – about the size of a harbor seal and oriented like an underwater wind turbine – will operate on triple duty when deployed. In addition to generating valuable data, the device will help power a busy drawbridge and support community education as part of UNH’s Living Bridge project. It was enough to plunge into an unknown field.

Waves of uncertainty

Neither Sedigh nor Bichanich knew what to expect when designing an axial turbine, but the excitement of creating something new drove them forward. Bichanich, a practical person, came to the project with a degree in environmental engineering, a life around lakes and a penchant for mechanical tinkering.

Growing up in a somewhat remote Midwestern town, Bichanich was always an engineer, “and certainly not in a professional sense,” he said. Whenever his friends’ cars broke down, Bichanich would go to the local junkyard to scavenge. “The quickest way to see how a part works is to hold it in your hands,” Bichanich said.

Bichanich and his mentor, Martin Wosnik, had been working on the new turbine design for almost two years when Sedigh joined the team.

Sedig brought special competences. His master’s degree in aeronautical engineering taught him how propulsion systems work in a different fluid: air. Ready for

Sedigh is working on data collection controls that have been integrated into a “living” tidal turbine. Photo by Parviz Sedigh, UNH

something new, he made a leap into the denser field of marine energy.

“My interest in aerospace engineering came from my childhood,” Sedigh said. “Every time I saw an airplane, I wanted to know how such a gigantic machine could fly. I wanted to know the principles behind it. Generating electricity using water is an evolution of aircraft engines, and the axial flow tidal turbine has many similarities in principle, so I wanted to learn more.”

However, for this turbine, the design team would deviate from earlier versions. Sedigh and Bichanich needed a turbine to detect and collect data. It would have to protect many types of sensors along with their wiring and controls, all while powering small receivers and avoiding pollution in the turbid estuary before the Piscataqua reaches the Gulf of Maine. If the project is successful, they will contribute original data to the Living Bridge project and the global research community.

“I have never built anything that was this important,” Bichanich admitted. “Working on something completely new can be a challenge, but it’s always rewarding when you see the designed parts being created and hold them in your hands.”

Sedigh also raves about the professional engineering process as he “only worked with ideas from previous projects.”

Ready or not, the band had to start somewhere. They sifted through the conceptual scraps of previous designs, drawing inspiration when possible or adding a unique twist when necessary. “We couldn’t address previous projects individually due to the scale: sometimes the costs don’t make sense,” Bichanich explained.

Working closely with NREL, PNNL and Sandia, the team ultimately settled on a feasible 3D model. All that remains is production and physical assembly, which will be completed in 2024.

An axial flow tidal turbine will collect operational data and power the Memorial Bridge in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Rendering: Mason Bichanich, UNH

Better data to improve the living bridge

Initial tests of the new turbine are scheduled to be conducted this year in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, under the Memorial Bridge, which has been renamed the Living Bridge by the Atlantic Marine Energy Center (AMEC) to promote its role as a pillar of public science. It is a place where students and citizens can interact and learn about the power electronics attached to the bridge pilings, helping to educate and excite the public about tidal energy.

Compared to the earlier research turbine located under the bridge, the incoming turbine is technologically unique in that it is perfectly equipped to collect as much data as possible. The basis for data collection is NREL’s MODAQ software, which includes open source software for logging performance data. MODAQ simplifies the publishing and sharing of data that can be presented on the Living Bridge in Portsmouth.

Under the Living Bridge, researchers and students interact with and learn about tidal energy. Photo: Martin Wosnik, UNH

“Through this project, NREL is sharing its existing experience and technology skills with AMEC and its students in the hope that the Living Bridge platform can be used for future turbine testing and education,” said Aidan Bharath, project manager at NREL. “Bichanich and Sedigh are building the foundations of a research platform that will enable testing and comprehensive monitoring of future turbine components.”

Bichanich, Wosnik, Sedigh and Lannammen pose with the nose cone of the new turbine at UNH’s Jere A. Chase Ocean Engineering Laboratory. Photo: Andressa Gutierrez, UNH

Data from the MODAQ system will be publicly available through the Marine and Hydrokinetic Data Repository of the Office of Water Technologies. In addition to tracking turbine load, power output and environmental conditions, equipment such as PNNL’s acoustic camera will also observe upstream for floating hazards and collect data on tidal debris. “One day we got hit by a lobster pot,” Bichanich recalled, also noting the dangers of fallen trees and swinging icebergs.

Installation soon

For Bichanich and Sedigh, the rest of the work is mostly defined — things like running cables and testing instruments. Of course, there’s nothing trivial about submerged electrical components, but as the team nears the finish line, they realize how important close collaboration has been.

“Sedigh and I turn a wrench as much as anyone else,” Bichanich said.

“One person may come up with an idea, but two of us can try to multiply the idea to get the optimal result,” Sedigh added.

As their first professional engineering achievement, the turbine will forever remain a special project, and both researchers plan to keep it close by.

“Sedigh and I will be attached to everything we put on this platform. And since we built it, we will be best prepared to work on it,” Bichanich said.

Learn more about NREL marine energy research. And sign up for NREL’s hydropower newsletter, Currentto make sure you don’t miss the water power update.

Author: Connor O’Neil, NREL.

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