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Here's a summary of the key steps in a closed OTEC cycle:

1. Ammonia (or another low-boiling, heat-transport fluid) flows around a closed loop at the heart of the
system. That's the white square in the center of this illustration.
2. Hot water enters a completely separate pipe near the surface of the ocean and is piped toward the
central loop containing the ammonia.
3. The hot water and the ammonia flow past one another in a heat exchanger, so the hot water gives up
some of its energy to the ammonia, making it boil and vaporize.
4. The vaporized ammonia flows through a turbine, making it spin.
5. The turbine spins a generator, converting the energy to electricity.
6. The electricity is carried ashore by a cable.
7. Having left the turbine, the ammonia has given up much of its energy, but needs to be cooled fully for
reuse. If the ammonia weren't cooled in this way, it wouldn't be able to pick up as much heat next time
8. How is the ammonia cooled? In a third pipe, cold water is pumped up from the ocean depths.
9. The cold water and ammonia meet in a second heat exchanger, which cools the ammonia back down to
its original temperature ready to pass around the cycle again.
10. The cold water from the ocean depths, now slightly warmed, escapes into the ocean (or it can be used for
refrigeration or air conditioning).
11. The hot water from the ocean surface, slightly cooled, drains back into the upper ocean.
In open-cycle OTEC,
The sea water is itself used to generate heat without any kind of intermediate fluid. At the surface of the ocean,
hot sea water is turned to steam by reducing its pressure (remember that a liquid can be made to change state,
into a gas, either by increasing its temperature or reducing its pressure). The steam drives a turbine and generates
electricity (as in closed-cycle OTEC), before being condensed back to water using cold water piped up from the
ocean depths. One of the very interesting byproducts of this method is that heating and condensing sea water
removes its salt and other impurities, so the water that leaves the OTEC plant is pure and salt-free. That means
open-cycle OTEC plants can double-up as desalination plants, purifying water either for drinking supplies or for
irrigating crops. That's a very useful added benefit in hot, tropical countries that may be short of freshwater.

The biggest problem with OTEC is that it's relatively inefficient. The laws of physics (in this case, the Carnot cycle)
say that any practical heat engine must operate at less than 100 percent efficiency; most operate well below—and
OTEC plants, which use a relatively small temperature difference between their hot and cold fluids, have among
the lowest efficiency of all: typically just a few percent. For that reason, OTEC plants have to work very hard (pump
huge amounts of water) to produce even modest amounts of electricity, which brings two problems. First, it means
a significant amount of the electricity generated (typically about a third) has to be used for operating the system
(pumping the water in and out). Second, it implies that OTEC plants have to be constructed on a relatively large
scale, which makes them expensive investments. Large-scale onshore OTEC plants could have a considerable
environmental impact on shorelines, which are often home to fragile, already threatened ecosystems such
as mangroves and coral reefs.

Photo: Onshore OTEC plants can take up a lot of valuable coastal land. This is the Natural Energy Laboratory at
Keahole Point, Hawaii. Photo by Warren Gretz courtesy of US DOE/NREL.

Although OTEC plants are only suitable for tropical seas with relatively large temperature gradients, that's less of a
problem than it sounds. According to DOE/NREL, OTEC could theoretically operate in 29 different sovereign
territories (including warmer, southern parts of the United States) and 66 developing nations; and temperate parts
of the world that can't operate OTEC most likely have alternative forms of ocean power they could exploit,
including offshore wind turbines, tidal barrages, and wave power.
Although OTEC produces no chemical pollution, it does involve a human intervention in the temperature balance
of the sea, which could have localized environmental impacts that would need to be assessed. One important (and
often overlooked) impact of OTEC is that pumping cold water from the deep ocean to the surfaces releases carbon
dioxide, the greenhouse gas currently most responsible for global warming. The amount released is only a fraction
(perhaps 10 percent) as much as that produced by a fossil-fueled power plant, however.

Synergetic products
 Fresh Water: The first by-product is fresh water. A small hybrid 1 MW OTEC is capable of
producing some 4,500 cubic meters of fresh water per day, enough to supply a population of 20,000
with fresh water. OTEC-produced fresh water compares very favourably with standard desalination
plants, in terms of both quality and production costs.
 Food: A further by-product is nutrient rich cold water from the deep ocean. The cold “waste” water
from the OTEC is utilised in two ways. Primarily the cold water is discharged into large contained
ponds, near shore or on land, where the water can be used for multi-species mariculture producing
harvest yields which far surpass naturally occurring cold water upwelling zones, just like agriculture
on land.
 Cooling: The cold water is also available as chilled water for cooling greenhouses, such as the
Seawater Greenhouse or for cold bed agriculture. The cold water can also be used for air
conditioning systems or more importantly for refrigeration systems, most likely linked with creating
cold storage facilities for preserving food. When the cold water has been used it is released to the
deep ocean.
OTEC technology is not new. In 1881, Jacques Arsene d'Arsonval, a French physicist, proposed tapping
the thermal energy of the ocean. But it was d'Arsonval's student, Georges Claude, who in 1930 built the
first OTEC plant in Cuba. The system produced 22 kilowatts of electricity with a low-pressure turbine. In
1935, Claude constructed another plant aboard a 10,000-ton cargo vessel moored off the coast of Brazil.
However, weather and waves destroyed both plants before they became net power generators. (Net
power is the amount of power generated after subtracting power needed to run the system.)

In 1956, French scientists designed another 3-megawatt OTEC plant for Abidjan, Ivory Coast, West
Africa. The plant was never completed, however, because it was too expensive.

The United States became involved in OTEC research in 1974 with the establishment of theNatural
Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority. The laboratory has become one of the world's leading test
facilities for OTEC technology.

 1993: The Natural Energy Laboratory sets a new record for open-cycle
OTEC of 50kW. Six years later, it successfully tests a 120kW closed-
cycle plant.
 2008: Tamil Nadu Electricity Board is operating an experimental 1MW
plant at Kulasekarapattinam, near Tiruchendur in the Tuticorin district.
 2009: US Navy contracts Lockheed Martin to develop a 5–10MW OTEC
plant (currently budgeted at $12.5million).
 2015: Lockheed Martin opens its OTEC plant in Hawaii, connects it to
the US power grid, and announces plans for a much more ambitious
10MW plant in China.

Hybrid systems combine the features of closed- and open-cycle systems. In a hybrid system, warm
seawater enters a vacuum chamber, where it is flash-evaporated into steam, similar to the open-cycle
evaporation process. The steam vaporizes a low-boiling-point fluid (in a closed-cycle loop) that drives a
turbine to produce electricity.


In general, careful site selection is key to keeping the environmental effects of OTEC minimal. OTEC
experts believe that appropriate spacing of plants throughout tropical oceans can nearly eliminate any
potential negative effects on ocean temperatures and marine life.

OTEC power plants require substantial capital investment upfront. OTEC researchers believe private
sector firms probably will be unwilling to make the enormous initial investment required to build large-
scale plants until the price of fossil fuels increases dramatically or national governments provide financial
incentives. Another factor hindering the commercialization of OTEC is that there are only a few hundred
land-based sites in the tropics where deep-ocean water is close enough to shore to make OTEC plants