Floating platforms could be the next revolution for wind energy

Jun 24, 2022 | Available Tech, Innovation

It’s no secret that climate change is a major issue affecting our planet today. Many innovations seek to take advantage of the various renewable resources at our disposable, such as wind energy. The best wind resources onshore tend to be in regions with limited population, but attention is now being directed to offshore wind, which is often stronger and near more people. While multiple offshore wind projects are being planned, these follow a relatively expensive and infrastructure-needy European model. However, a pair of researchers at Northeastern are looking to shake up the offshore wind industry with a new type of wind turbine platform.

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Photo by Joshua Brown

Andrew Myers is an Associate Professor in the Civil and Engineering Department at Northeastern University, and Jim Papadopoulos is a Senior Research Engineer in the same department. Together, they founded the start-up T-Omega Wind, which focuses on redesigning offshore wind turbines. They’ve since been able to grow the team; additions include experienced energy industry executives and entrepreneurs Brita Formato (CEO), Vin Loccisano (COO), and Dave Forbes (CCO). Recently, the team received a £100,000 grant from the TechX CleanEnergy Accelrator program for their wind turbine project. With funding secured, the T-Omega team has started to move out of the conceptual phase and into more direct testing. They’re working on introducing a floating offshore wind turbine that will have more flexibility and efficiency when compared to current offshore wind turbine models.

For Myers and Papadopoulos, their work partnership has been fruitful from day one. On Myers’ first day at Northeastern, the pair met at a seminar and immediately began discussing wind energy. “After the seminar, Jim came right up to me and started drawing out an idea for a segmented wind turbine tower, and I just thought, ‘what a cool idea!’,” Myers recalls. Since then, the pair continued to bounce ideas back and forth, though initially nothing came of it. Later, as Myers gained experience and tenure, he reconnected with Jim in order to put their old thoughts into practice. “I got the space and the ability to think big – really big – and the chance to explore something original from scratch, so Jim and I met every week to start thinking about this clever idea for a floating wind turbine.” They’ve been able to complement each other’s strengths well, with Papadopoulos providing many of the ideas and Myers grounding them. “We operate in different dimensions – if I didn’t have anyone to bounce things back and point out flaws, I wouldn’t have gone anywhere. It’s been a really fruitful and supportive connection,” Papadopoulos notes. Those conversations turned into models, and now they are working on protypes and additional fundraising.

As it stands, existing offshore wind turbines are extra heavy and built only on other continents, so Myers and Papadopoulos are working to revolutionize that. Myers notes, “one key limitation with current wind turbines is that they are fixed to the sea floor, so they can only operate in shallow water.” The novel floating model that they propose would circumvent this issue, and it would also provide other benefits. “A radical redesign of the entire tower and the floating platform will have huge advantages in reducing cost of energy, scalability, and deployability.” The offshore wind energy industry in the U.S. is on the verge of taking off, but is hampered by a variety of existing barriers. “One piece of the puzzle is that we’ve designed something that can remove multiple barriers,” Papadopoulos says. “The world needs much more clean energy, so we’re looking at ways for this to provide more by being cost effective in many more locations.” Ultimately, their design will work towards allowing powerful offshore wind to be harvested in many more locations.

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Photo by Joshua Brown

From day one, the duo has had a shared interest in wind as a renewable energy. “It’s an enormous resource located close to population centers, so I’ve always been bullish about offshore wind as a renewable resource to combat the climate crisis,” Myers says. For Myers specifically, he found this project to be the perfect intersection between his engineering studies and his passion for the environment. By creating a design that is easier to build and deploy, Myers and Papadopoulos are playing their part in helping to reduce harmful emissions. However, as they quickly learned, having a successful technical concept is only the first step in the process to realization.

Despite coming up with a design, finding support for the project proved to be more difficult than expected. “I expected to be able to attract investment before the team was more established, but I’m discovering that investors want to see more than just compelling technology,” Myers recalls. Papadopoulos agreed, “that was part of the validation, to attract a CEO means that someone with a commercial background agrees that it’s worthwhile.” The long timelines and large investment needed made it less appealing when compared with software that might have a shorter turnaround. However, with support from the Center for Research innovation (CRI), they were able to file patent applications. Additionally, CRI was supportive as they sought their first grant from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Centre. “That first grant made everything solid,” Papadopoulos notes. From there, they were able to build their team and eventually secure the TechX grant. For the T-Omega team, it’s all been a part of the process, and now Myers and Papadopoulos can finally realize those concepts they imagined from day one.

Article by Corey Ortiz