The Magazine for Underwater Professionals
What's hanging on to the UK's renewable energy industry?
An unusual new project that will take a close-up look at a group of highly specialised sea creatures could shed new light on the secret life living on renewable energy devices below the waves.
The project could ultimately see the creation of a detailed map to identify the type, speed of growth and prevalence of attaching organisms with the aim of better informing the operation and maintenance of subsea equipment.
The project is being led by the Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult, the UK’s flagship technology and innovation centre specialising in offshore renewables, in conjunction with researchers from SAMS Research Services, UK, PML Applications, UK, and paint manufacturer AkzoNobel, the Netherlands.
The overall aim of the project is to map for the first time how communities of these attaching, or ‘sessile’, creatures vary around the UK’s coast and to develop a sensor to measure their growth rates, with the purpose of better advising offshore installations and developing preventative methods.
Leading the project is Vicky Coy, ORE Catapult project manager. She says: “Biofouling is a huge issue both in the UK and across the world. We work closely with offshore renewable energy technology developers and biofouling is repeatedly highlighted to us as a potential challenge for the renewables industry and related sectors.
“These organisms often attach in large numbers, creating particular problems for offshore renewable energy structures and the associated operational activities, adding weight, clogging machinery and accelerating deterioration.
“While much is known about these communities, this is the first time they have been looked at in this way, including the way growth patterns vary around the UK’s waters, and the impact they could have on renewables installations such as offshore wind and subsea tidal turbines, wave energy devices and their connected infrastructure.
“The project outcomes will also support greater understanding of the evolving bio-diversity of our seas.”
Many industries, including renewables, shipping and telecommunications, rely on subsea equipment for their day-to-day operations, however the growth of such organisms can have a detrimental effect on electricity production, maintenance operations, repairs and ultimately costs.
Coy says: “We are working on a feasibility study to establish a unique mapping tool that will indicate the likely species to be encountered in the UK’s waters, including the rates of growth and their thicknesses, as these vary greatly around our diverse coastline. Using this information, we plan to develop a sensor that can measure the real-time growth of these communities, giving industry insight into the impacts on their infrastructure.
“These tools could be invaluable to the offshore energy industry and, indeed, many subsea enterprises, as well as deliver an unprecedented close-up look at the biodiversity existing on man-made structures in the UK’s waters.”
Dense marine growth on structures such as marine buoys or turbines can weigh in excess of 22 kilograms per square-metre, causing large increases in structural load and accelerating damage, particularly on moving components.
Dr Raeanne Miller, marine scientist at Oban’s SAMS Research Services, says: “The build-up of marine organism growth, or biofouling, is well-known to result in severe operational issues and increased down-time across a range of marine industries – offshore renewable energy included.
“The type of biofouling around UK waters varies greatly. Biologists already have some tools and datasets to predict the type of biofouling which may develop on subsea structures and more data will continue to support the assessment of forthcoming sites for development and the planning for accurate maintenance and cleaning levels.
“Mapping these habitats won’t just be useful for industry, it could be a hugely important tool to help preserve indigenous species and protect our seabeds.”