Capturing icebergs

The planet's Polar Regions might hold the answers to water shortages

The planet's Polar Regions might hold the answers to the Middle East's potable water shortage.
The planet's Polar Regions might hold the answers to the Middle East's potable water shortage.

The planet’s Polar Regions might hold the answers to the Middle East’s potable water shortage

Sometimes inspiration arrives before technology can make it happen, and an idea has to wait until knowledge and equipment catches up with it. Between 1975 and 1981, Georges Mougin and Saudi prince Mohammed al-Faisal founded Iceberg Transport International (ITI), a company that aimed to bring Mougin’s idea to exploit tabular icebergs for fresh water to reality.

Over five years of research and four Antarctic expeditions, the company looked at the practical feasibility of ‘iceberg capture’ – taking control of a drifting iceberg and towing it to a destination to utilise the freshwater it is made from.

With hundreds, even thousands of icebergs naturally drifting from the Polar Regions each year, the project promised a ground-breaking - if patently unconventional - solution to water shortages around the world.

Mougin says that at the time the project stalled because precise data on the bottom relief of the oceans either remained undiscovered or was classified information. Knowledge of the behavior of ocean eddies – potentially giant whirlpools created by ocean currents – was also “primordial” and, crucially, sufficiently powerful tugboats capable of pulling a berg weighing millions of tonnes were very thin on the ground.

Now however, these issues are no longer the obstacles they were. Moreover, advances in computer modeling and simulation presents an opportunity to accurately model a prototype iceberg without ever having to climb into a boat.

Whilst watching a documentary on how Dassault Systèmes had modeled Egypt’s Khufu pyramids, Mougin because aware of the benefits that the firm’s 3D modeling software could have for his project, and also of the existence of a corporate sponsorship programme – “Passion for Innovation” – that supported innovative ideas.

Iceberg exploitation
The idea Mougin presented to Dassault Systèmes has some important features, most notably dealing with the perhaps glaring issue of preventing an iceberg from melting during the journey.

“The aim of iceberg capture is to take control of a selected iceberg using a large net of the same type as those used to capture tuna. Melting prevention is achieved first by a 12 metre high floating belt to prevent wave erosion, completed by a bottom “blanket” and “skirt” to maintain a still layer of water against the ice to act as an insulator.

Melting loss is limited to a certain thickness according to the journey duration and the temperatures of the seas crossed. This thickness is independent of the berg size and therefore represents a percentage that declines with the dimensions,” Mougin explains.

It is important to make clear that icebergs made of compressed snow-turned-ice are completely
solid freshwater, and therefore represent a significant potential water source. Furthermore, Mougin believes that regions such as the Middle East could benefit doubly, with the ice also becoming an important resource for cooling.

“In countries such as the UAE, where all-year air conditioning is a major cause of electrical energy consumption, ice fusion represents a significant cooling power. For district cooling, a slurry of ice pieces could be regularly delivered to provide the cold water otherwise cooled by electrocompressor units. This slurry would be produced on the iceberg as a quarry, and delivered by pipe or ship.

“The cost of iceberg insulation protection, ocean crossing, quarry exploitation and slurry delivery are largely overcome by the ice value – between US$6 and $8 per tonne. An iceberg of 100 million tonnes at departure could provide 30 to 40 million tonnes of ice for sale,” Mougin says.

Such was the prospect that Mougin presented to Dassault. Cédric Simard, the company’s project director on the “Ice Dream” scheme, says that the idea’s potential made it especially appealing.

“The first step for me was to assess the man – Who was he? What was his background? Was he credible? - and then to look at his idea. It really is an outstanding project – there are no limits to it and we decided to embark on the adventure and provided him with our help and software solutions to test the technical feasibility of it,” he says.

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3D modeling
Whilst Dassault make clear that the sponsorship of Mougin doesn’t imply their involvement in the business of iceberg exploitation, it is clear that the project went to great lengths to ensure the simulation was as accurate as possible.

The company used real data collected in Newfoundland, with precise representations of icebergs created through a mixture of satellite data and a kind of 3D iceberg x-ray. The company also created a database of videos, photographs and academic white papers, so that the resulting 3D model was as real as possible.

“Once we have the shape and the physical properties of the virtual iceberg, the two major challenges are to simulate first, the drifting of the convoy – so how many boats would be sufficient to tow a seven million tonne iceberg? Then, how would the convoy behave if it met an eddy? So we simulated that as well. We also took into account satellite data about conditions such as the wind, the swell, the waves and the sea currents,” Simard adds.

In addition to this vast amount of data, Mougin had some very impressive names on the scientific committee that oversaw the project. Amongst those contributing were Professor Peter Wadhams, head of the Polar Ocean Physics Group in the department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University, and Professor Olav Orheim, a glaciologist and former director of Norway’s polar institute.

Simard also makes clear that Georges Mougin himself has more than forty years of experience working in naval engineering, with a “perfect knowledge” of sea conditions. Dassault Systèmes software itself is also used and trusted by a large number of more conventional customers.

“Our software is used to build planes, cars, buildings. We have over 800 customers worldwide, and the algorithms of our software are validated by many kinds of industry players and companies worldwide. As such, when you need to simulate, for example, the melting process of an iceberg, that’s not rocket science to our simulation engineers,” Simard says.

Putting all of this together, the result was a 3D simulation where an iceberg convoy could be simulated in a few minutes, with the ability to adjust parameters such as the weather conditions, the size of the berg and the number of boats used. The data allowed the researchers to see the resultant ice loss, how much oil was used, how routing affected operations and the time the whole operation would take.

“So you can see, for example, that from point A – let’s say Newfoundland, to point B – the Canary Islands, the journey has taken 140 days, you’ve consumed so much oil, you’ve lost ice up to a particular rate. It only takes two to five minutes to generate, which means if you want to replay it – say with two tugboats instead of one, or a different route – you can in a matter of minutes. To do this operation only once in reality, in a physical prototype simulation, would cost around $12 million,” Simard explains.

Mougin says that the study was immensely helpful and has helped contribute to the project’s rebirth.

“Using the virtual technologies, we concluded that Mougin’s project is technically feasible. This means that today you have the tug boats with sufficient power available; you have very new composite materials to create the giant skirt used to protect the iceberg from melting. We also have the satellite data, both oceanographical and meteorological data, that wasn’t available a few years ago. Overall, you have simulation technologies of the 21st Century which you can use to integrate that data and simulate the operation without endangering anyone, and with much-reduced costs, before embarking on the physical prototype,” Simard adds.

Simard says that whilst the models showed that it was indeed technically feasible to tow an iceberg from point A to point B with enough protection to prevent it from melting too much, there are still many adjustments needed to make the operation truly cost-effective. Mougin has now taken the test data and founded a company – WPI (Water and Power from Icebergs) – to take the project forward. Experimenting with a physical prototype is now the next stage for the project and plans are already underway.

“The remaining challenge is to engage in real time experiments to confirm the simulations; notably the thermal efficiency of the protective skirt. We are planning firstly for an experiment in 2013 with three small icebergs moored or grounded in a Newfoundland bay – one not protected – where they will be subjected to tide currents, so that we can test different types of protection to define the optimal conditions of their life extension.

“The second, hopefully in 2014, will be for an experimental transfer in the north Atlantic to confirm the technical and economic feasibility of the scheme,” Mougin concludes.


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