The power of the oceans

The energy coming from the sea is still a huge potential. Eni's challenge is to exploit this capacity and hence, expand the field of renewables.

by Paola Arpino
30 March 2020
9 min read
by Paola Arpino
30 March 2020
9 min read

For the Greeks of old, the sea, with all its uncontrollable force, was a divine power, something that could turn the tide for all who sailed on it, for better or worse, at the whim of the God Poseidon, who ruled the waves from the shadowy depths.
Unbridled energy like the sea’s has always prompted fear and fascination. The latter inspired the Florentine painter Sandro Botticelli when he painted his famous Venus emerging from the waves, in contrasting light and dark blue, whose beauty marries calm and still.
The waves are the driving force behind the oceans, which alone cover 70% of the earth’s surface. They are a basin of energy spread over the globe, the biggest source of renewable energy in the world, and if exploited with the right technologies, they could satisfy much of the entire planet’s demand for electricityEni has embraced this challenge with open arms, relying on research and technological innovation and starting initiatives with other leaders in marine energy.

The new Marine Renewable Energy (MORE) Lab

In 2020, Eni renewed a partnership agreement with the Politecnico di Torino, with the aim of exploiting the energy of the sea, through academic research and development of new technologies, based on the Institute’s decades of experience. This collaboration has enabled the realization of MarEnergy, a research centre formed by qualified personnel of the polytechnic and from Eni’s professionals. To support the centre, the two parties have set up an university chair in Sea Energy at the polytechnic, the first academic institution in Italy to give technical and scientific training to future experts in the field, and further speed up the transition of these technologies into industry.

The result of this collaboration is the joint research laboratory set up by the Politecnico di Torino and the new Eni MORE Lab (Marine Offshore Renewable Energy Laboratory). This laboratory will expand the joint field of action to the study of all marine energy sources, investigating not only wave motion but also offshore wind and solar, ocean and tidal currents and salt gradient. 

MORE Lab is located in the Politecnico, where it benefits from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering research infrastructures, and is complemented by two Eni’s facilities: Eni Marine Virtual Lab, located in the supercomputing HPC5 headquarters of Ferrera Erbognone, and Eni open sea test area in Ravenna (where the pre-prototype phase of ISWEC is under way). Moreover, the Laboratory collaborates with the Politecnico testing site in Pantelleria, where sea technologies are tested within an island ecosystem, with an aim of testing the potential self-sufficiency of energy, with no impact on the landscape.

HPC5 gives shape to new energies

The Virtual Marine Lab can rely on the calculating power of Eni’s HPC5 supercomputer. Thanks to the extraordinary amount of advanced mathematical models the machine can process at the same time, Eni and Politecnico di Torino will be able to research the industrial application of renewable energy from waves much more quickly. In this specific field, HPC5 will provide complex information on the habits of sea waves and on weather at sea, allowing us to design different models based on specific local conditions.

In line with the new plan of technological development and the path of decarbonization Eni has taken, the exploitment of marine energy is one of the company’s main priorities, along with sources like offshore wind, ocean currents, tides and salt and thermal gradient.

Ongoing and future projects

One of the projects born from the alliance between Eni and Politecnico di Torino is ISWEC (Inertial Sea Wave Energy Converter), the world’s first experimental plant for making hybrid energy from wave and solar power on platforms. It was built in March 2019, offshore of Ravenna. Further implementation of this technology is expected this year. The new, full-scale version of ISWEC will be 75 by 62 feet. Its design will be optimised by the “ISWEC Open Sea” virtual machine created and chosen by HPC5 from more than 23,000 different designs. It will produce electricity from both waves, using gyroscope technology, and solar, using solar panels installed on its roof. The system will be wired up to the Prezioso platform offshore of Gela, to feed it with renewable energy. The project is in line with wider sustainable development in and around the town. The goal over the next few years is to apply this technology to other sites in Italy, above all near small islands, where industrial-scale plants will provide renewable energy.

Besides ISWEC, Eni and Politecnico di Torino have other projects in the pipeline, including a bio-fixation reactor for CO2 using algae, a study into the feasibility and conceptual design of a superconducting magnetic energy storage (SMES) module using magnesium boride (MgB2), a new Caliper Smart Pig (CaSP) prototype for inspecting pipelines and a flexible riser for producing composite material for use in deep waters.

The pilot plant of the ISWEC technology

EU boost

Marine energy is defined by the EU as an “emerging” sector, as it could help not only spread renewable energy but also reduce gas emissions, something key to combating massive climate change and a target for many industrial companies responsible for producing CO2. Using so-called “blue energy” would also be a great opportunity to create new professional skills and prompt global economic growth. To help this market expand, the Ocean Energy Forum has laid out a strategic roadmap, which the European Commission published on 12 October 2016. It sets out the salient points on a path that the leading marine energy companies in the EU might follow, to produce technologies that can satisfy a great deal of their countries’ energy demands in the next 35 years.

A turbine running on “circular” intelligence

After many intensive tests at its sea laboratory at Boulogne, IFREMER, the French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea, gave birth to Windcity, the first prototype for an intelligent turbine. The goal was to perfect a type of turbine that could produce electricity from natural wave power, but above all with no need for human help. The prototype is the result of a collaboration between Seed Money, the EU project MaRINET2, Italy’s National Research Council and the University of Pisa. It heralds a real revolution along “circular” lines, as its end goal is to recover water from industrial waste, canals and coastlines.

A joint approach to ocean energy

“The research and development necessary to harness these resources is now taking off within a European blue research community that is providing insights and technologies to move forward across a whole spectrum of challenges,” states Andreea Strachinescu, Head of Unit at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, in an article laying out her thoughts on the matter.
In the piece, Strachinescu calls for “business innovation in the areas of offshore energy, aquaculture, biotechnology, data services, seabed activities [that] builds on insights gained in research.” She goes on: “We need to join everything up. The challenges are similar and lessons learned in one domain can be applied in another. Underwater robotics, lightweight materials and anti-biofouling coatings are reducing the cost and increasing the reliability of offshore installations for both renewable energy and marine transport.”

The bet is on companies that will be able to ease the energy transition process and use whatever innovation it takes to unleash the power of the oceans.

The author: Paola Arpino

Traveling with myself, through Rome, London and Milan I keep nurturing a dream, that of writing.