Ocean Energy: Products and Pollutants (2017-2018)


As technological developments have better enabled us to understand and exploit ocean common-pool resources, the ocean’s economic potential will continue to be harnessed in new ways to meet demands for energy (offshore oil and gas, methane hydrates and alternative wind, tide, wave sources), food security (aquaculture, fisheries), minerals (deep sea mining), pharmaceuticals and other emerging needs.

Oceans also represent a significantly less visible, highly interconnected and more difficult environment to manage than most terrestrial systems. Ocean energy entails significant risks, the most visible of which is the risk of oil spills either from production or from transportation of crude oil in ocean settings, but including lesser known threats such as noise pollution that results from various industrial processes involved in producing ocean energy.

Ocean energy is, indeed, a much larger and more complex topic than just oil spills. The surge in ocean renewable energy technologies, including algae biofuels, and newfound hydrocarbon reserves make this issue an emerging one that also has a significant history.

Project Description

This Bass Connections project team will focus on the products (e.g., energy from multiple sources) as well as pollutants (e.g., ocean noise, altered seascapes) resulting from ocean energy development.

Team members will analyze the values, judgments and preferences inherent in competing visions for management and governance of ocean energy resources and how to manage the products and pollutants. Through team discussions and activities, individual research and writing and interaction with classmates, instructors and collaborators, team members will assess the consequences of human decisions of current ocean energy issues including:

  • Deep-sea mining
  • Traditional oil/gas development
  • Renewable energy sources and engineering new technologies
  • Governance of “high-seas” ocean energy resources.

Ocean waves represent an enormous source of energy that could be tapped to power long-range buoys in remote ocean locations. The engineering component of this project will involve designing, building and testing an ocean energy harvesting buoy. Potential implications from this work include the ability to expand the operational life of buoys indefinitely as the need to replace batteries will become unnecessary. The potential to create mesh networks of wireless sensing data buoys, then, could serve multiple purposes. Monitoring marine mammal migratory patterns, seismic activity, meteorological phenomenon and navigational aids are among the many application areas that already exist. 

The goals of the applications portion of the project involve exploring the energy response of a standard ocean buoy based on its geometry (e.g. size, shape, center of mass) in an aquatic environment (e.g. wave tank tests and ocean tests at the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort). Tested devices will be deployed at the Duke Marine Lab.

Anticipated Outcomes

Interactive Ocean Energy catalog (history of ocean energy development; types of energy currently available or envisioned for the oceans; relevant institutions and their roles in managing ocean energy; sustainability implications of coupling concerned systems and/or societal institutions); energy development map connected with important ecological and economic systems; design, testing and evaluation of newly engineered systems for harvesting ocean energy; expert panel on ocean energy

Student Opportunities

Students will choose a sub-team (e.g., small-scale energy harvesting, energy-related ocean noise), but will all engage in discussions and reasoning on both the personal and public decision-making processes of historical, current and future questions involving human conduct and the use of ocean energy resources. Team members will learn about the history of using the oceans as a source of energy for human pursuits; become conversant in the benefits and challenges of harvesting energy from the oceans; and understand the disciplines involved in the issue of ocean energy (e.g., biology, geology, law, ethics, engineering, public policy) and how constructive interaction between and among those disciplines is essential for wise development and management of ocean energy resources.

The team will likely be comprised of ten undergraduates (students majoring in biology, engineering, environment and public policy are especially encouraged to apply); five master’ students (students in the MEM program are especially encouraged to apply); and two PhD students (students specializing in either management of offshore energy, measuring impacts of offshore energy development and/or researching new methods of ocean energy harvesting).


Fall 2017 – Spring 2018  

  • Fall 2017: Structure and outline of issues to be addressed and of products for sub-teams; expert panel on ocean energy
  • Spring 2018: Products completed by May 31


Independent study credit available for fall and spring semesters

See earlier related team, History and Future of Ocean Energy (2016-2017).


Faculty/Staff Team Members

Lori Bennear, Nicholas School - Environmental Sciences & Policy
Martin Brooke, Pratt School - Electrical & Computer Engineering*
Elizabeth DeMattia, Nicholas School - Division of Marine Science and Conservation
Jay Golden, Nicholas School - Earth & Ocean Sciences
Patrick Halpin, Nicholas - Landscape Ecology*
Zackary Johnson, Nicholas - Marine Science and Conservation*
Brian Mann, Pratt School - Mechanical Engineering & Material Science*
Douglas Nowacek, Nicholas School - Marine Science & Conservation*
Stephen Roady, Law
John Virdin, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions*

* denotes team leader