Researchers have been awarded almost £1million to test the potential for flexible materials to be used in the design and manufacture of offshore renewable energy structures.

The FlexWave project will explore whether types of rubber, composites and polymers can be effective in harnessing wave power and converting it into a renewable and sustainable source of energy.

It will assess whether such materials are better at withstanding extreme storms and sea conditions, and pose less of a threat to the environments in which they are placed.

And it will explore if flexible materials can be more reliable, sustainable and cost effective than existing alternatives such as steel or concrete.

The FlexWave project is being supported by a grant of £984,000 from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

It will be led by academics from the University of Plymouth, in conjunction with colleagues from the University of Oxford and University of Southampton and they will also work closely with an advisory board of industry and innovation partners from the ORE sector.

Together, the three-year project will unite experts in hydrodynamics, materials and deployable structures to tackle the potential challenges in design, manufacture and survivability of flexible wave energy systems.

It will include several phases of design analysis and numerical modelling simulations, to test the technology’s performance, as well as physical tests within the cutting edge COAST Laboratory in Plymouth.

The researchers will also work closely with the advisory board and wider industry to ensure any technology developed can be applied in real-world settings.

Professor Deborah Greaves
Professor Deborah Greaves OBE

Professor Deborah Greaves OBE, Head of the School of Engineering, Computing and Mathematics at the University of Plymouth, and Director of the EPSRC-funded Supergen Hub, is the project’s Principal Investigator. She said:

“Marine wave energy has the potential contribute around 15% of the UK’s present electricity demand. However, despite a number of technical advances in recent years, it is still an emerging technology, especially when compared to other areas of the ORE sector such as offshore wind. This project is very timely as we can explore new innovations which may make wave energy more reliable and cost effective. It also presents an opportunity to look into synergies across the sector, and how wave energy could be integrated with offshore wind installations or used as a power supply for offshore installations, aquaculture, and remote and island communities.”

Professor John Chaplin, from the Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences at the University of Southampton, said:

“A key issue in this project is that of survivability. Many concepts for wave energy devices have been found to be vulnerable to the effects of extreme loading in storm conditions. We aim to address this problem in exciting new ways, exploiting the properties of flexible membranes in novel geometric constructions.”

Professor Zhong You, from the Department of Engineering Science at the University of Oxford, added:

“The project tries to create enclosures made from flexible materials inspired by origami to harvest marine wave energy more effectively. It is probably the first application of origami in marine engineering. I am extremely grateful to the EPSRC for its support, which will enable us to explore potentially ground-breaking concepts.”

The new project is one of eight to receive a share of a £7.5 million investment by the EPSRC, with the overall aim of helping the UK achieve its Net Zero goal.

Put together, the projects will build on the UK’s leading role in marine wave energy to overcome challenges to devices that capture the energy generated by waves and convert it into a renewable source of electricity.

Energy Minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan said:

“Our coastline and the power of the seas around us offers huge potential for clean renewable energy that can help us meet commitments to end our contribution to climate change by 2050. There are certainly unique challenges in harnessing the power of the marine environment and it is exciting to see how these projects can help us make the most of our natural resources in a cleaner greener future.”

EPSRC Executive Chair, Professor Dame Lynn Gladden, said:

“As a source of renewable power, marine wave energy would complement existing wind and solar technologies and help to provide a balanced supply. By overcoming challenges to effective marine wave energy technologies, the projects will help to unlock a valuable source of renewable energy and help the UK to achieve its Net Zero goal.”

Sunset Offshore Wind Turbine in a Wind farm under construction of England coast, UK. Image courtesy of Getty Images.  

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