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Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) is a process which utilizes the temperature difference between warm surface seawater and cold deep ocean water to drive turbines to generate electricity. The OTEC process requires a temperature difference of approximately 20°C to 24°C, unlike geothermal, coal, nuclear and diesel power plants which employ a gaseous medium with a temperature difference of several hundred degrees. This is achieved by using concentrated solar energy that has been absorbed by warm 24° to 29°C tropical surface seawater in combination with cold 6°C seawater pumped from a depth of at least 600 meters. Since the temperature of both the tropical surface seawater and the cold deep ocean water stays fairly constant daily and throughout the year, the 20°C temperature difference is always available both day and night and from season to season. Using the sun for its heat source, the OTEC process is free of any kind of emissions and is, therefore, non-polluting.

Basically, there are two different OTEC systems for the extraction of thermal energy from the oceans to generate electricity: the open-cycle system and the closed-cycle system.

Open Cycle OTEC exploits the scientific principle that water boils at low temperature in a vacuum. In this system, warm surface seawater (about 25°C) is pumped into a vacuum chamber. The low pressure (1,400 pascals) of the chamber causes the seawater to boil and partially vaporize at that low temperature. The resulting low-pressure steam turns a turbine that drives an electrical generator. After it has passed through the turbine, the steam is then condensed either by “direct contact” with cool seawater or by passing it over a heat exchanger through which cold ocean water is pumped, thereby providing a
cold surface to reliquefy the steam.

OTEC – Open cycle diagram – Image adapted from NELHA. Click here for larger image.
The resultant condensate is a bonus byproduct – desalinated water that has the purity of distilled water and a crisp taste and can therefore be used without treatment for drinking and irrigation. A 250 kW experimental open-cycle plant was built at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA) in the early 1990s. This facility has used 150 kW to operate the plant, resulting in 100 kW of usable electrical power and 7,000 gallons of fresh (desalinated) water per day. Georges Claude, a French scientist who also invented the neon sign, first designed an open-cycle OTEC system, which he tested at Matanzas Bay in northern Cuba in 1930. The turbine generated 22 kW of gross power, but consumed more than that in operating, partly because of poor site choice.

Jacques-Arsène d’Arsonval, a French scientist, first proposed the concept of a closed-cycle OTEC system in 1881. In the closed-cycle system, warm surface seawater is pumped into a heat exchanger (the evaporator) containing a low-boiling point “working” fluid such as ammonia. Heat transferred from the warm surface water via the heat exchanger vaporizes the working fluid. The expanding vapor turns a turbine driving an electrical generator. Cold deep ocean water pumped to a second heat exchanger (the condenser) provides a cold surface to reliquefy the ammonia vapor. The fluid is then returned to the first heat exchanger.


A hybrid OTEC plant can be used for desalinated water production; the hybrid plant includes a closed cycle component for electricity generation and a second stage, consisting of a separate vacuum “flash” evaporator and a surface condenser, for fresh water production.

OTEC – Closed cycle diagram – Image adapted from NELHA

It is estimated that a 1 MW hybrid cycle plant can produce one million gallons of fresh water per day , while a 50 MW plant can produce as much as 16 million gallons of water per day. That is sufficient to support a community of approximately 300,000 people in the developing world. The first OTEC plant to yield more electrical power than it consumed was “Mini-OTEC”. It was a closed-cycle system built in 1979 by mounting it on a barge moored about two kilometers off Keahole Point where NELHA is located.


Recently, a 1 MW closed cycle OTEC power plant was built on a floating platform 30 km off the coast of Tuticorin (Tamilnadu State), a city in southeastern India. Similarly, a land-based 1 MW hybrid OTEC power plant will soon be built at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA) on the Big Island of Hawaii. Plans have also been drawn to build a number of hybrid OTEC plants totalling 30 megawatts along the coast of the Pacific island nation of Palau. Additionally, Makai Ocean Engineering is involved in the planning and design of seawater supply pipelines for an OTEC power plant to be built on a United States naval base on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. This hybrid plant is expected to generate 13 megawatts and produce 1.25 million gallons of fresh water per day, a byproduct of the process. More recently, in June 2007, Kuwait National Petroleum Company signed a memorandum of understanding with regards to building an OTEC facility for power generation and fresh water production.




Artist conception of a 50-meter high, 100-meter diameter offshore OTEC plant designed to generate 100 MW of electrical power.

Click here to view labelled image


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