Ireland at the crest of a new wave in maritime technology

With the opening of the Beaufort Research Centre, the State could become a world leader in this untapped sector

Ireland has the potential to become a leader in maritime research and engineering with the announcement of the Beaufort Research Centre. To be based in Ringaskiddy, Co Cork, it will help make us a world player in the development of wind and wave power.

The Taoiseach was on hand late last week to turn the sod on a €15.2 million development that will produce a new home for maritime research already under way at University College Cork. It will create a critical mass of researchers able to bid for the biggest projects in areas such as marine renewable energy and general marine development, says the centre's director Prof Tony Lewis. "The idea is to develop activity in the maritime space – economic activity, generating jobs and capitalising on research," he says.

Harnessing resources
Ireland has long been a consumer of technology but now has real potential to take control of a sector and become an innovator, developing the technologies needed to harness wind, wave and tidal renewable energy resources.

The campus at Ringaskiddy will see the development of a 4,700sq m building that will provide a home for three existing University College Cork research groups, says Prof Lewis. These include his own Hydraulics and Maritime Research Centre which conducts research into renewable energy, oil and gas development, coastal engineering and port development.

This group will be joined by the Coastal and Marine Research Centre which deals with planning, mapping, coastal management and ecology. The third participant is the Sustainable Energy Research Group which deals with the integration of renewables into the national grid and exploiting what these new energy systems can give us.


These “cornerstone” research groups will be joined by the National Ocean Test Facility, to be housed in the new Beaufort building. This will provide access to a 35m x 12m x 3m-deep tank capable of producing waves that approximate what conditions will be like at sea for offshore facilities.

The Beaufort building will also house Marei, the €25 million Marine Renewable Energy Ireland research centre funded by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI). It is one of seven new SFI centres where academic researchers will join forces with industrial participants, who are expected to cover up to 30 per cent of the research costs, Prof Lewis says. Marei already has 50 industrial partners so there is great potential for discoveries of direct relevance to the maritime sector.

The academic and industrial partners will be sailing into uncharted waters when it comes to renewables from the sea. Because the sector is so new, many of the engineering challenges have yet to be answered by international research teams working to stake a claim in the sector.

One research project already under way is looking to find ways to push wind turbines further out to sea where their noise and visual nuisance aspects will not be a factor. The challenge is in erecting them and keeping them in place despite the storms thrown up by the Atlantic.

As a solution, the researchers are designing floating platforms to keep the turbines in place. The platforms would also have wave power turbines built into them to get the most out of the energy available. Prof Lewis explains that scale models can then be built and tested in the massive wave generator tanks which provide a realistic model for what the Atlantic can deliver.

The new 35m tank, when installed in the Beaufort Building, will be able to generate a wave measuring 1.2m. This scales up to 25m waves measured off Belmullet last November, Prof Lewis says.

The tank will help researchers overcome the "survival problem" faced by any major engineering project that hopes to survive at sea.

Teasing out issues
Another project aims to ensure that wind and wave power coming from a floating platform is fully exploited once it reaches land.

The turbines spin at different rates at different times, something that produces an uneven stream of current that initially cannot be connected to the national grid. Researchers at Beaufort are working to smooth this out so the power is fully usable.

“The Beaufort Research Centre and its 135-strong team will represent one of the largest research communities dedicated to maritime research, placing it amongst the biggest in the world,” Prof Lewis says. “The opportunity for Ireland to take that and move forward is huge.”

The facility is named after Rear Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort (1774-1857), the Irish hydrographer and officer in Britain's Royal Navy. He invented the Beaufort Scale for estimating wind force, a measure we still hear used today during our Met Éireann weather forecasts.

How breaking virgin territory will lead to jobs
The Beaufort Research Centre is about world class research, but it is also about how discoveries can lead to jobs, says Georgina Foley, the centre's business development and access manager.

The centre will have 135 full-time scientists and engineers working on real world projects that contribute to Ireland’s maritime industries. The potential for employment is huge.

A recent report commissioned by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland suggested that the wider maritime industries had the capacity to deliver 52,000 jobs by 2030, Ms Foley said. Ireland also had the possibility of becoming a world player in the sector, particularly given that the marine renewable energy sector was so new.

“It is an emerging industry and no one has all the answers,” she says. “It is all brand new. There isn’t, as such, a technology that is ready for market.” No one country has managed to gain control of the potential market, so Ireland could become a real player internationally.

“The prize for doing so is massive,” she says. “We have everything we need in Ireland and and the resources to really be the one to move this industry forward.”

The maritime sector is one of more than a dozen priority research areas targeted by the Government and by Science Foundation Ireland. Support for Beaufort matches State policy, but also seeks to align us with billions of euro worth of funding that will flow from the EU’s new science budget Horizon 2020, Ms Foley says.

Her role will be to ensure the centre pays its way by attracting EU research projects and by encouraging industry/academic collaboration.

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former Science Editor.