Brian, the heavy weight sea-snail

07 Nov 2009

Weighing in at 30 tonnes and capable of generating 150 kilowatts, Brian is the world's first free-standing tidal energy turbine system, developed by Robert Gordon University (Aberdeen).

But Brian is just one of many innovations in renewable energy coming out of Scotland today.

Wind and wave power

Energy: the world runs on it. With hydro-electricity and gas and oil from the North Sea, Scotland is already a major provider of energy. But environmental concerns, such as greenhouse gas emissions from traditional fossil fuel, and the decline in the North Sea basin, have led to increasing research, exploration and production of renewable energy, derived in the main from solar, wave, wind and water power.

Scotland's northerly latitude coupled with a complex marine geology that creates unparalleled tidal patterns means it has abundant natural resources for wind and wave generation of renewable electricity. In fact, it has more than 25% of Europe's wind and wave energy resource. And Scotland's Renewable Resource publication, commissioned by The Scottish Government estimates that Scotland has a potential 14GW of wave energy and 7.5GW of tidal power - equivalent to more than twice Scotland's current total installed generation capacity. Such resources have helped shape Scotland's demanding environmental goal - to produce 40% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

Hydrofoils and hydrogen

The potential is huge but there are some fairly large challenges, too, that inevitably boil down to cost. But scientists at many of Scotland's leading universities are tackling a host of barriers in order to make renewable energy commercially viable. That's where Brian comes in.

The creation of Professor Ian Bryden of Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, this revolutionary new turbine model could finally make the cost-effective generation of tidal energy a reality. The sea snail has overturned the assumption that harnessing tidal currents for energy would rely on fixed devices mounted on the seabed by either gravity or pillars. Developing such devices would be very costly and pose problems with drilling as even gravity structures require heavy lift vessels which cannot operate in shallow water. The sea snail, by contrast, uses down thrust from hydrofoils, to enhance its grip on the seabed. The rougher the drag forces, the stronger and more secure the downward force of the snail. And, as well as removing depth limitations, it is also up to 50% cheaper to place than the former approach.

Another challenge for renewable energy is distribution. Electricity from these sources is more often than not generated in remote areas where the need is disproportionate to the potential production. Until now, the challenge of harnessing and distributing this electricity to areas of dense population like South East England has posited the need for extremely expensive cables and related infrastructure. But Professor John Irvine and his team at St Andrews University are investigating hydrogen as a viable alternative and developing a micro-electrolyte concept for steam electrolyser electrolytes to convert the energy into a chemical fuel that can be transported to where it is needed for electrical generation.

These are just two ground-breaking research projects that are bringing the widespread use of renewable energy closer. And just a sample of projects underway at these two universities that are leading the field and are working in collaboration on several projects that deservedly have attracted Scottish Enterprise Proof of Concept funding.

Pioneers in a new sector

The development and manufacture of renewable energy technologies in Scotland is still in its infancy. But if projects like the ones touched on above make the anticipated breakthrough the sector has the potential to become a major employer of the same order that oil and gas is today (6% of the Scottish workforce).

Without doubt it's the way of the future. And that future's approaching at a pace somewhat faster these days than a sea-snail's.

Interested in finding out more about Scotland's renewable energy industry? Visit

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