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Cloaking technology could protect offshore rigs from destructive waves

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November 21, 2012

Brazilian oil platform P-51 (Image: Agência Brasil/Wikipedia)

Brazilian oil platform P-51 (Image: Agência Brasil/Wikipedia)

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Recent years have seen much progress in the development of invisibility cloaks which bend light around an object so it can't be seen, but can the same principles be applied to ocean waves that are strong enough to smash steel and concrete? That's the aim of Reza Alam's underwater “invisibility cloak.” The assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, recently outlined how to use variations of density in ocean water to cloak floating objects from dangerous surface waves.

When you look at the sea, it’s easy to imagine that it’s just one big mass of water, but it actually has a structure consisting of layers of different temperatures and densities. They aren't mere abstractions either. If you've ever gone scuba diving you may have swum down only to hit what seems like an invisible barrier that you have to actively push your way through. That’s the point where two of these layers meet.

“The density of water in an ocean or sea typically isn't constant, mainly because of variations in temperature and salinity,” said Alam. “Solar radiation heats the upper layer of the water, and the flow of rivers and the melting of ice lowers the water density near the surface. Over time, these effects add up to form a stable density stratification of two layers – with the lighter fluid layer on top and the more dense fluid layer below it.”

How the cloaking works (Image: Reza Alam, UC Berkeley)
How the cloaking works (Image: Reza Alam, UC Berkeley)

Where these layers meet “internal waves “can travel on the interface like those on the water’s surface. The difference is that the internal waves have the same frequency of oscillation as surface waves, but a shorter wavelength and slower speed.

What both surface an internal waves have in common is that they can be distorted by the seabed in the same way that a lens can distort light. With ocean waves, there’s an energy transfer involved that Alam was able to simulate in a computer. He found that by placing a corrugated or wavy pattern tuned to particular wavelength on the seabed it would cause surface waves to temporarily become internal waves.

By placing such a pattern under an oil rig, dangerous waves would shift to the subsurface interface, travel under the rig, and then return to the surface once they've cleared the pattern. In other words, the rig becomes invisible to surface waves. The idea is similar to land-based systems proposed for diverting earthquakes using rubber barriers or plastic rings, except in this case the waves are altered in order to divert them.

“Cloaking in seas by modifying the floor may play a role in protecting nearshore or offshore structures and in creating shelter for fishermen during storms,” said Alam. “In reverse, it can cause the disappearance and reappearance of surface waves in areas where sandbars or any other appreciable bottom variations exist.”

Alam presented his scheme to the American Physical Society’s Division of Fluid Dynamics earlier this month in San Diego, California.

Source: American Physical Society (PDF)

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy
4 Comments

This is fun. We might get a tsunami and wont see it coming

Facebook User
22nd November, 2012 @ 04:13 pm PST

This idea could also be used to simultaneously improve the efficiency of surface or semi-submersible wave & flow action generators as well as create artificial "spaces" underwater that would be selectively attractive to aquatic life.

Fishermen have always known that some areas have better fishing than some other seemingly identical area. This difference in wave behaviour could be an excellent explanation. So a "space" could selectively improve the power gained by a wave or flow generator and have a lee side, or down side space that is uniquely attractive to fish, maybe even species specific fish.

StWils
23rd November, 2012 @ 07:58 am PST

Wow! this is really interesting stuff. I've often considered something similar in capturing wind and having the density "pluck" something like a Venetion blind, sending the "wave" as captured energy that could be used. I'm certain the physics works, I just don't have the math o get there.

Steve Northrop
23rd November, 2012 @ 10:07 am PST

Nice but the 'pattern' under the rig has to rotate to match the direction of incidence, the 'pattern' like as not would be a large number of baffle plates on the sea floor which rotate and rise and fall to match the incoming wave frequency. A very large number, needing power and maintenance.

Another option might be bio degradable 5m high bamboo, shafts which planted like a forest in the sea floor would dampen out any incoming waves in the same way mangroves did before the invention of shrimp farms.

L1ma
2nd December, 2012 @ 03:01 am PST
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