Scientists develop revolutionary power source enabling subsea robots indefinitely

From left, Michael Zedelmair and Miles Mallinger, both of Seatrec, and Capt. Todd Black of Fish Heads La fishing charters, deploy a float with one of the company’s SL1 power modules in the Gulf of Mexico before the 2022 hurricane season to collect data that could improve hurricane predictions. Credit: Seatrec Inc.

NASA has a new invention that could revolutionize how we explore the ocean.

Robots powered by this new technology can now map the entire seafloor without ever running out of energy.

This is a significant advancement, as previous underwater robots were limited by their batteries, which often left them “dead in the water.”

The technology was developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California and is now offered by Seatrec Inc., based in Vista, California.

This new energy source allows subsea robots to power themselves using the environment around them, eliminating the need for battery replacements or recharges.

Yi Chao, who earned a doctorate in ocean sciences, played a key role in this development. Chao joined JPL to focus on ocean studies, even though it might seem surprising for a space agency to be involved in such work.

However, NASA has made understanding Earth’s oceans a top priority. The agency has launched many satellites to measure sea levels, temperatures, salinity, and other important ocean features.

Chao spent many years studying the ocean from space, including his work on the Aquarius satellite mission.

This mission measured the salt content of ocean water from space but required calibration with direct measurements from sensors placed in the ocean.

Chao and his team had to distribute these sensors across vast oceanic distances, which was a challenging and time-consuming task.

During this mission, Chao realized how difficult it was to access open oceans and how the energy limitations of underwater robots were a major obstacle.

These robots rely on batteries, which either need to be replaced or recharged using ships that cost around $50,000 a day and burn a lot of diesel fuel. This inspired Chao to find a better energy solution.

Chao and two colleagues from JPL developed a new power source using phase-change materials. These materials change from solid to liquid at certain temperatures, expanding as they melt and contracting as they freeze.

By harnessing this expansion and contraction, they could generate electricity to recharge the robots’ batteries.

This concept is similar to how a steam engine works, but it required extremely efficient components to generate enough energy. Chao’s team selected the most efficient parts to make the process work. As a result, they created a power source that allows underwater robots to operate indefinitely in the open ocean.

This groundbreaking technology has the potential to transform ocean exploration, making it easier to map the seafloor, unlock valuable resources, and protect marine habitats.

With this new energy source, subsea robots can now work continuously, providing a more comprehensive understanding of our planet’s oceans.