by Patricia Frischer
In 2014 we produced an exhibition call the DNA of Creativity and one of the 4 programs we funded was Sea Change: Act. Kira Carrillo Corser, Director, Sea Changes ACT Project is still advocating because: “Our oceans are losing millions of sea life due to climate change, plastic pollution, and over-fishing. Art can bypass fear and build knowledge, while promoting positive change to communicate our loss, our choices and our future.”Recently, I attended a recent presentation arranged by Mira Costa’s LIFE program by SeaTrec owner, inventor and CEO Dr. Yi Chao. His mission is to map the ocean floor. Although most countries have documented their own coast lines, 80% – 90% of the open ocean floor has not been mapped. This is important because 1. A fundamental variable is unknown (enquiring minds want to know), 2. There is a need for navigational safety and efficiency, and 3. Data is needed for resource management for all sorts of industries like fisheries, future mining, weather forecasting, species discovery and preservation. We don’t know the topography of the floor, or the different temperature levels or even all of the currents. And this is because the information is so hard to access in the water and so vast.
There are only a few vessels doing this work and the future is certainly going to be with new robotic data collection and connections to satellite communications. Currently there are surface robot from companies like OceanAero, SubSeaSail which can be fueled by wind and sun. Right now, there are 4000 robots already in the sea but fueled by huge lithium batteries. They need to be replaced every four years so 1000 a year sink to the bottom of the ocean bed, with no way of finding and removing them. There is no regulation about dumping batteries in the ocean. They are considered disposable and certainly not sustainable. The companies that make these robots, can keep selling them to the military and research companies who are their biggest consumers. They have no real profit motive in sustainability. This is irresponsible but only public shame and government restrictions will change this practice.
But there is a solution. An undersea robot energy source is what is needed and SeaTrec is supplying the tech for sustainable robots. Therma energy is stored in the ocean supplied by the sun. The closer to the equator and the to the surface, the warmer the ocean is. There are many ways to harvest big temperature changes. The trick is how to harness the 20 C degree difference in temp which is small but worldwide. SeaTrec specializes in this small difference in ocean temperature with an invention using a sensitive wax which expands when it heats up near the surface. The pressure this expansion causes when squeezed from one chamber to another, creates the energy to recharge the battery. It can be stored to send the robot back down where the wax solidifies. Each robot is outfitted with these self-contained mini-charging stations. Larger charging stations might be possible in the future to recharge propeller driven robots for all sorts of task.
Currently the battery driven robots are collecting data on temperature variation, but adding sound echo sensors will enable mapping of the sea floor. The robots have to come to the surface to communicate to satellites but a series of relays to boast signals might also come in the future. SeaTrec envisions 10,000 sustainable robots for an initiative called SeaBed 2030.
You might ask if currents could be used for sustainable energy, but most ocean current are quite weak. Remember, you only see wind turbines in strong windy places. And this tech could be used on land because of the difference in temperature from day to night, but the land already has much more reliable and cheaper sources of energy. The market is only in remote places and that is not really financially competitive.SeaTrec originally got its funding from research and government sources like Nasa and the Navy. Now that it is a for profit company it has sales contracts, license fee for their technology, private foundations, small business grants, private capital Angel investors. They want to expand to make data available to commercial shipping, sea farming, and mining so that these industries are able to make better decisions.
It seems like the one thing missing here is a way to get the public interested in the progress that SeaTrec has made and the services that they are offering to bring pressure to bear on companies using the old lithium battery technology. This is where the arts have a role to play by bringing in an emotional component to communications. The arts excel at this. Dr. Yi Chao sees a future to help climate change, to supply a reliable food source, to make more predictable weather forecasting, and maybe even have a time when we can all interact with the ocean in a sustainable way.
Lots of inventions would not get made if the inventors did not start businesses. But business is not just research. It demands a whole new set of skills. SeaTrec located in Vista is looking for staff and interns but not just for the science stuff but for marketing, communication, and business abilities.
To hear the entire presentation until the end of 2021, click here