Systems engineering professor, NREL develop tools to make hydrokinetic turbines accessible

Computer rendering of hydrokinetic turbine in the water with a shark behind it.
A computer model of a hydrokinetic turbine in a river. Courtesy of ARPA-E’s SHARKS program.

With the help of a CSU researcher, there may one day be SHARKS in rivers.

Unlike sharks found in oceans, these SHARKS, or Submarine Hydrokinetic and Riverine Kilo-megawatt Systems, deal with flowing water.

Rivers and ocean currents have the potential to provide what is known as hydrokinetic energy using underwater turbines. These turbines can generate a significant amount of energy if they are efficient and accessible.

Improving accessibility and efficiency are two of the goals of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) SHARKS program.

Dan Herber, assistant professor in Systems engineering, is working alongside researchers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to remove barriers to future hydrokinetic energy development as part of a $1,200,000 grant from ARPA-E.

Rivers present unique challenges

The project, “A Computer Tool to Control Co-Design Hydrokinetic Energy Systems,” will expand NREL’s current Wind Energy with Integrated Servo-control toolbox to include co-design capabilities of tidal and riverine hydrokinetic turbines.

Hydrokinetic turbines have higher loading forces than wind turbines. They are constantly submerged in water, and compared to wind turbines, are moved by much denser fluid than air. Water also flows at varying speeds at different depths in the river, leading to complex design considerations.

Herber is helping to develop the design and optimization methods tools utilizing river flow models.

Co-designing the system

This project will be one of the first to develop hydrokinetic energy systems utilizing co-design techniques.

Complex systems require many engineers working on them, and often these systems are separated in some way. With co-design, however, both the physical system and operating needs are treated as one system.

“The control co-design space helps us to create projects that industry is able to adopt,” Herber said. “We want to make something aligned with industry that has lowered the barrier of entry to these technologies.”

Professional indoor headshot of Dan Herber
Daniel Herber, Assistant Professor of Systems Engineering, Walter Scott Jr. College of Engineering.

Impact beyond SHARKS

The design tools may have impacts beyond this project. All of the models and designs will be publicly available as part of NREL’s open-source toolkits, supporting future hydrokinetic projects and promoting control co-design.

“It maybe sounds challenging to combine these separate design areas,” Herber said. “But, in many ways, it only requires being more strategic about what you model and invest your time in exploring upfront.”

Herber hopes that the results of this and other co-design projects he is working on will demonstrate the usefulness of the method.

“The ideal outcome is not just a new mathematical model, but that we conveyed the value and lowered the barrier to entry to the point that engineers in the field can use these tools,” Herber said.