Underwater sea creatures living on renewable energy installations to be studied

Published 3 February 2016

A new project to take a closer look at highly specialised sea creatures could shed new light on the secret life living on underwater renewable energy devices.

The project could ultimately see the creation of a detailed map to identify the type, speed of growth and prevalence of attaching organisms – a process known as ‘biofouling’ – with the aim of better informing the operation and maintenance of sub-sea equipment.

The project is being led by the Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult, the UK’s flagship technology and innovation centre specialising in offshore renewables, in conjunction with researchers from SAMS Research Services Ltd (SRSL), PML Applications Ltd and paint manufacturer AkzoNobel.

The overall aim of the project is to map for the first time how communities of these attaching, or ‘sessile’ creatures vary around the UK’s coast and to develop a sensor to measure their growth rates, with the purpose of better advising offshore installations and developing preventative methods.

Leading the project is Vicky Coy, ORE Catapult project manager. She said:

“Biofouling is a huge issue both in the UK and across the world. We work closely with offshore renewable energy technology developers and biofouling is repeatedly highlighted to us as a potential challenge for the renewables industry and related sectors.

“These organisms often attach in large numbers, creating particular problems for offshore renewable energy structures and the associated operational activities, adding weight, clogging machinery and accelerating deterioration.

“While much is known about these communities, this is the first time they have been looked at in this way, including the way growth patterns vary around the UK’s waters, and the impact they could have on renewables installations such as offshore wind and subsea tidal turbines, wave energy devices and their connected infrastructure.

“The project outcomes will also support greater understanding of the evolving bio-diversity of our seas.”

Many industries, including renewables, shipping and telecommunications, rely on subsea equipment for their day to day operations, however the growth of such organisms can have a detrimental effect on electricity production, maintenance operations, repairs and ultimately costs.

Vicky added:

“We are working on a feasibility study to establish a unique mapping tool that will indicate the likely species to be encountered in the UK’s waters, including the rates of growth and their thicknesses, as these vary greatly around our diverse coastline. Using this information, we plan to develop a sensor that can measure the real-time growth of these communities, giving industry insight into the impacts on their infrastructure.

“These tools could be invaluable to the offshore energy industry and, indeed, many subsea enterprises, as well as deliver an unprecedented close-up look at the biodiversity existing on man-made structures in the UK’s waters.”

Dense marine growth on structures such as marine buoys or turbines can weigh in excess of 22kg per square metre 1, causing large increases in structural load and accelerating damage, particularly on moving components.

Dr Raeanne Miller, marine scientist at SAMS, said:

“The build-up of marine organism growth, or biofouling, is well-known to result in severe operational issues and increased down-time across a range of marine industries – offshore renewable energy included.

“The type of biofouling around UK waters varies greatly. Biologists already have some tools and datasets to predict the type of biofouling which may develop on subsea structures and more data will continue to support the assessment of forthcoming sites for development and the planning for accurate maintenance and cleaning levels.

“Mapping these habitats won’t just be useful for industry, it could be a hugely important tool to help preserve indigenous species and protect our seabeds.”

The project will also look at the potential for developing sensors to monitor the type of biofouling occurring on subsea surfaces, measuring the type of growth, depth of growth and speed of fouling.

Dr Tom Vance, research and development manager at PML Applications Ltd, said:

“The prospect of being able to monitor the growth of sessile creatures in real-time offers great potential for the renewables industry and other sub-sea sectors. This technology could lead to significant decreases in the cost associated with maintaining offshore renewable devices.”

Richard Ramsden, section manager for Biocidal Antifouling with AkzoNobel, said:

“We produce specialist paints for use in many sub-sea sectors and recognise biofouling as something that has a real and tangible impact on many industries, particularly where there is a need for moving or interchangeable parts. We hope our years of experience and expertise can help with the development of this map and long term, practical solutions for industry.”

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