Untapped Resources and New Horizons – The ATLANTIS Program

For thousands of years, civilization has been fascinated by the fabled lost city of Atlantis. Legend has it that the ancient city was a technologically advanced utopia filled with riches and wealth, and theories on the lost civilization speculate it’s reach extended far past the boundaries of the ancient Mediterranean world. While over the years skeptics have dismissed its existence as the stuff of myth and legend, explorers have nonetheless long searched for Atlantis. To this day, its story continues to serve as inspiration to those seeking to discover new frontiers and reach untapped resources.

Our mission at ARPA-E may not include a focus on searching for long-lost treasure or fabled civilizations, but we do focus on finding and developing untapped energy resources, particularly using transformative energy technology. With the same spirit of discovery as explorers who search for the wealth rumored to rest within Atlantis, we recently announced our own search for untapped energy generation resources that lie over the horizon. The difference is that we know these resources exist, and our ATLANTIS project teams are working to access those offshore wind energy resources unreachable by traditional fixed-bottom offshore wind turbine designs.

The ATLANTIS Program

Announced early 2019, ARPA-E’s ATLANTIS program seeks to design radically new floating offshore wind turbines (FOWTs) by maximizing their rotor-area-to-total-weight ratio while maintaining, or ideally increasing, turbine generation efficiency. ATLANTIS projects also seek to develop and build a new generation of computer tools to facilitate FOWT design; and collect real data from full and lab-scale experiments to validate the FOWT designs and computer tools. One of the hallmarks of the program is the application of control co-design (CCD) methodologies that integrate all relevant engineering disciplines at the start of the design process, with feedback control and dynamic interaction principles as the primary drivers of the design.

Image of ocean wind turbines representing the ARPA-E ATLANTIS program

ATLANTIS is unique for us here at ARPA-E for a few reasons, starting with this being our first foray into a program focused strictly on the development of floating offshore wind turbine design. While we have in the past funded some projects to develop offshore wind technology through our OPEN funding opportunities, we’ve never had a program dedicated entirely to this technology space, and more specifically have not worked exclusively in the development of FOWTs.

In addition to ATLANTIS’ focused technical goals, the program’s design differs from our other programs in that we’ve encouraged participants to develop proposals and projects that can complement each other on a collaborative level across the three design challenges of the program – turbine concept design, computer tools, and full and lab-scale experiments. This enables our teams to develop cooperative projects that can benefit each other with the ultimate goal of developing fully rounded, cutting-edge state of the art FOWT systems. 

Finally, our ATLANTIS awardees themselves are poised to develop transformational FOWT technologies through the incorporation of and collaboration with industry-leading concepts used across the wind energy market space. Our teams are working with – and in many cases are made up of – the world-leaders in turbine concept design, software development, and full and lab-scale experimentation – to develop FOWTs that can access wind energy resources long unreachable by more traditional offshore wind energy technologies.

Let’s take a look at just a few of our teams working with industry leaders to explore new horizons of energy generation through our ATLANTIS program:

Exploring Unique Turbine Designs

When people think of wind turbines, they often think of three-bladed horizontal-axis wind turbines, as they produce the overwhelming majority of wind power, worldwide. While this may be the most widely deployed turbine design, there are different types of wind turbines generating power today that we seek to further develop through the ATLANTIS program. Specifically, teams from Sandia National Lab and the University of Texas at Dallas are working on designing new vertical axis wind turbines (VAWT) that innovate traditional vertical turbine design and exploit inherent design advantages that make them uniquely suited for floating offshore deployment.

Sandia’s team, an established leader in VAWT, is working on a VAWT that can respond to weather conditions effecting the turbine itself. Their design utilizes cables connecting the blades to the floating platform instead of an internal tower anchoring the blades to the platform. Those cables will modify the shape of the blade in real-time in response to weather conditions surrounding the turbine, while also providing a benefit in lower system weight than VAWTs that utilize a tower for stabilization. UT-Dallas’ team will also employ a similar vertical access turbine design, but will use an internal tower instead of the cables, and will incorporate plasma actuators in the blades to reduce mechanical loads in the system. Both designs exploit inherent advantages unique to VAWTs, in that they have a lower center of gravity and use smaller platform structures than horizontal access. This lowers construction costs while increasing efficiency and resiliency against the deep-water environment that the ATLANTIS program is working to reach.

Developing Next-Gen Software Applications

Another awardee, Principal Power Inc. (PPI), is leading a consortium of public and private institutions to develop, validate, and operate the world’s first digital twin software tailored to floating offshore wind applications. Their digital twin model will utilize real-time, high-fidelity data from a fleet of deployed interconnected ocean buoys to estimate and predict the local environmental conditions of an offshore wind farm. This will  give  designers, operators, and stakeholders a greater understanding of offshore wind turbine performance and operation, and lead to less downtime, lower operational costs and better predictive capabilities.

PPI’s team will gather the data to build their real-time digital twin modeling by deploying buoys to the existing WindFloat Atlantic (WFA) project, the world’s largest floating offshore wind farm, to create a real-time digital twin of one of the world’s two operational floating offshore wind farms. Partnering with an operational floating offshore wind farm will enable PPI’s team to create real, reactive data sets to further enable creative and efficient FOWT design that incorporates real-world effects of deployment of FOWT technology.

Developing New Turbine Testing Tools

Through ATLANTIS, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) Wind Energy with Integrated Servo-control (WEIS) model tool set will enable control co-design (CCD) optimization of both conventional and innovative FOWT’s. This project builds on existing modeling work from NREL’s OpenFAST toolkit, the industry standard data toolkit for wind turbine design, to develop new offshore experimentation datasets designed and tailored for FOWT design. Combined with NREL and University of Maine’s FOCAL Experimental program team, which will design experiments to generate critical datasets to validate the capabilities designed specifically for FOWT applications, these projects are working to generate the first public FOWT scale-model dataset to include advanced turbine controls, floating hull load mitigation technology, and hull flexibility. The FOCAL experimental program will also serve as a validator for the WEIS model tool set to further improve on existing modeling capabilities through OpenFAST.

NREL is also working on developing a radical new turbine design in the third technical category of ATLANTIS, developing an innovative FOWT design - “USFLOWT.” USFLOWT combines an advanced wind turbine design with ultra-flexible and light blades, advanced aerodynamic control surfaces, and a revolutionary substructure, the SpiderFLOAT, to complete a CCD-enabled 10 MW turbine. All three of these teams at NREL are collectively working on the ATLANTIS challenge of using CCD to build transformative FOWT concepts, experiments, and data sets that are specifically designed for FOWT applications. 

What’s Next?

The selections for ARPA-E’s ATLANTIS program were announced in September of 2019, and these are just a few of the 15 projects that we are excited to work with and eager to follow as they develop. Our teams are just embarking on their own journey to explore new depths, both literally and metaphorically. They have the potential to create the future of offshore wind technologies that will help the U.S. access untapped energy generation resources across nearly 13,000 miles of domestic shoreline.

Contrary to the program’s namesake, we know that our teams are actively working towards the very real and achievable goal of creating more efficient FOWTs. With almost half of the world’s more than 25 quadrillion BTUs of offshore wind generation capacity lying in waters too deep for traditional offshore wind turbines, these teams are working to develop the technology to ensure the U.S leadership in offshore wind generation in the future.

For more information on our ATLANTIS program, click HERE, and for a list of our current awardees as well as descriptions of their projects, click HERE. This is just the first stage of the ATLANTIS program, and we envision it as just the beginning of focused ARPA-E activities in offshore energy generation. Stay tuned for more announcements about how we’re continuing to work to change what’s possible and innovate in this space here at ARPA-E!