Technology

What a robot crustacean means for energy

 By Amanda Saint

Dr. Brian Helmuth at Northeastern University, Boston, has invented a mechanical mussel that measures the climate conditions of the oceans. As well as being used as a signifier of the impact of rising sea levels and temperatures on the ocean’s ecosystems and food supplies, it can give energy providers important information when planning offshore facilities.

The robotic shellfish, also known as “robomussels,” are the same color, size and shape as the real thing. They contain small thermometers and data loggers that record the temperature every 10 minutes. The mussels have been tracking temperature changes in mussel beds across the world for the past 18 years.

Researchers at work

Working with a global team of almost 50 other scientists to install and monitor the robot crustaceans, Dr. Helmuth now has a huge amount of data on the world’s oceans. “Mus­sels act as a barom­eter of cli­mate change. That’s because they rely on external sources of heat such as air tem­per­a­ture and sun expo­sure for their body heat and thrive, or not, depending on those con­di­tions,” he said.

The results of the work appeared in a paper in Scientific Data magazine in October 2016 and all of the data is stored at Northeastern University’s Marine Sci­ence Center in Nahant, Mass­a­chu­setts. While the focus for the work has been on spotting areas where the ocean is heating up more rapidly, and tracking the effects of this on marine life and biodiversity, the data can also prove very useful for marine energy planners.

Robomussels are the same color, size and shape as the real thing

What does the data mean for marine energy?

Rising sea temperatures are going hand-in-hand with rising sea levels so this new data will have an impact on existing wind and oil and gas offshore installations. But, perhaps more importantly, as the drive to renewable energy sources gathers pace, it will provide important information for researchers working on innovative new marine energy systems.

Wave devices, for example, are still in very early stages of development and researchers base many of their current ideas on solutions that capture energy as waves break. If wave devices are to be a long-term solution for the energy sector, both the device’s developers and marine energy planners will need to take into account how far the seas could potentially rise.

While the data wasn’t gathered with this purpose in mind, Dr. Helmuth has provided a rich source of information that will help the marine energy sector as it makes plans for the future.

about the author
Amanda Saint
Journalist and content writer, specialised in engineering and technology with a focus on environmental sustainability, urbanisation and biotechnology.