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IBM listens in on wave energy's subsea sounds

In a wave energy project in Ireland, IBM will monitor a stream of acoustics data from a wave power generator to measure the environmental impact on the local marine ecosystem.

Ocean Energy

Harnessing energy from the oceans involves a lot more than putting a generator in the water.

IBM Research today announced a project to monitor the impact of noise on marine ecosystems from a wave energy generator in Ireland. Done in conjunction with the Sustainable Energy Authority Ireland, its part of an ongoing SmartBay project to monitor the environment of Galway Bay with sensors and telemetry to advance ocean energy.

To monitor the acoustic impact of wave power, a generator from OceanEnergy in Ireland is equipped with audio sensors. Data from the sensors is fed continuously to IBM's data centers for analysis with the goal of understanding noise levels and the effect on the local ecosystem.

"Underwater noise is a global environmental issue that has to be addressed if we are to take advantage of the huge potential of ocean energy," European Union Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science Máire Geoghegan-Quinn said in a statement.

When operational, IBM said the system will produce one of the largest streams of underwater acoustic data. The data will then be analyzed and made available to researchers, regulators, and ocean energy developers. IBM also hopes that the project will establish reporting standards and thresholds for other uses, such as offshore oil and gas drilling.

Getting useable power from the motion of waves or the changing of tides has the potential to supply a significant amount of energy to countries with the appropriate resources. But there are numerous technical and environmental barriers.

Even after they are installed, the generators themselves need to withstand very harsh conditions during operation. There is also a dearth of information on how underwater devices impact local ecosystems, such as local fish populations or marine mammals.

Europe, particularly the U.K. and Ireland, is ahead of the U.S. in terms of having the testing infrastructure for wave and tidal machines. There are a couple of proposals in the U.S., including one off the coast of Cape Cod, to set up locations to test devices and their environmental impact.

IBM Research's wave power project in Ireland is one of many related to renewable energy where processing big data sets can help take the risk out investments or advance energy technology. Earlier this week, IBM announced it will analyze meteorological data to better position turbines in wind farms for optimal energy output.