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IBM sees energy, money in motion of the ocean

IBM is developing the technology and expertise to analyze the impact wave energy converters such as the one pictured here have on the noise environment of the ocean.
IBM is developing the technology and expertise to analyze the impact wave energy converters such as the one pictured here have on the noise environment of the ocean.Photo courtesy Ocean Energy, Ltd

The computer giant IBM sees a profitable future in high-tech analytical tools that could expedite and enhance the rollout of machines to turn the motion of the ocean into electricity.

Such machines, called wave energy converters, are under development around the world as a means to tap what appears to be a clean, green source of renewable energy — wave power.

But there's no standard design for the machines or a consistent and reliable way to measure their environmental impact, according to Harry Kolar, a chief information technology architect with IBM's Smarter Planet initiative.

"In order for this industry to move forward, they have to do these environmental impact assessments, which include a lot of baseline studies in the case of noise," he told me.

Noisy technology

Scientists are concerned the noise generated by the machines could, for example, disturb marine mammals such as dolphins and whales that communicate with each other via sound waves and navigate via echo-location. 

"Basically, a lot of noise degrades the habitat of marine mammals, makes it harder for them to live their lives and they may go somewhere else if it becomes bad enough," Jim Thomson, an assistant professor in the department of environmental fluid dynamics at the University of Washington, explained to me.

Thomson is helping characterize the noise environment in Admiralty Inlet in Washington's northern Puget Sound for a pilot project with a local utility that will install underwater turbines to capture energy from the tides. The inlet has tidal currents that move as fast as 9 miles per hour.

As elsewhere around the world, researchers are concerned about the impact the turbines will have on marine life there, including orca whales. One of the largest concerns is noise, Thomson noted, which travels five times faster underwater than it does in the air and can go farther.

His team has done some data collection on the noise levels in Admiralty Inlet, where two turbines will be deployed in 2013, but he noted that the short duration of the projects and limited funds mean they lack a complete picture of the noise environment.

Real time analytics

The project with IBM and Sustainable Energy Ireland is unique in the sense that it will collect and analyze massive amounts of data on ocean noise in real-time. 

The system consists of an off-shore buoy that is loaded up with sensors such as underwater microphones that collect data on the ocean environment and the computing power to process that data and stream it to shore-based engineers in real time.

"We will be able to understand what's going on in a very dynamic environment," Kolar said. He and his team call this ability "real-time streaming analytics." 

Thomson, who is not involved with the project, likened this ability to a person sitting at a concert and analyzing the noise coming from the violins and base and other instruments all at the same time.

While this ability exists in separate pieces for ocean energy projects, the IBM collaboration is the first to bring all the technology together in the same place, at the same time, and with the ability to monitor continuously.

Ultimately, these data should allow for a comprehensive picture of the underwater noise environment that should ease along the environmental permitting process and also help companies refine their wave energy machines.

"To allow the industry to move forward, to deploy these machines, the faster they get in the water, the faster you get this clean energy piece," Kolar said.

Ocean energy services

IBM is hoping to employ its technology and expertise in characterizing the noise environment gained in Ireland to other countries and companies around the world looking to develop their own ocean energy industries.

According to Thomson, this is a smart business strategy, assuming governments continue to support renewable energy technologies.

"There's going to be a whole industry that crops up around it that's in support of it, that doesn't actually do the generation of the kilowatts, but that does all of the marine services, the environmental permitting and monitoring and all these things that surround the energy production," he said.

IBM, it appears, is making a bet that ocean energy is an untapped space where it can be a major player.

More on ocean energy technology:

John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.