Future ocean research instruments may create their own fuel by “eating” plankton.

Reimers is working on plankton fuel cell technology
Reimers is working on plankton fuel cell technology

During the past couple of years scientists have been able to use decomposing organic matter on the ocean floor to create fuel cells that can provide low levels of electrical power for months.

Now OSU researchers have gone a step farther, creating the same power-producing decomposition activity from plankton taken at the surface.

While the fuel cells on the floor provide power for equipment that doesn’t move, such as listening devices for earthquakes, this new development holds greater promise.

“By harnessing plankton power, we potentially could fuel autonomous mobile instruments that would glide through the water scooping up plankton like a basking shark, and converting that to electricity,” says Clare E. Reimers, a professor in the College of Oceanographic and Atmospheric Sciences at OSU and director of the Cooperative Institute for Marine Resources Studies, a collaborative effort between OSU and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The power generated by the plankton isn’t large-scale, but if a free-gliding ocean instrument used the plankton in its path, it might extend its survey mission for months, or even years.

“The fuel is there–in the mud, or in the plankton,” says Reimers. “Our focus is on developing power for oceanographic equipment. Who knows what spin-offs will develop beyond that?”

Meanwhile the sea floor research goes on. In October Reimers, who works out of a lab in OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center at Newport, led a cruise off the Oregon coast where researchers deployed eight fuel cell prototypes along the ocean shelf. The instrumentation packages will stay imbedded in the sediment about 20 kilometers offshore for a year and then be recovered.

Plankton Power news article

Cooperative Institute for Marine Resources Studies

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