Introducing the Salter Sink

Energy from the sun heats up the surface of the ocean. As that heat irradiates up and fuels storms, they can become ever more dangerous hurricanes. Reducing their destructive potential is possible if we can just cool off the surface of the ocean. Even just one degree centigrade might be the difference between a category 4 or category 5 hurricane. This is a nearly ridiculous notion because of the scale involved. Thousands of square miles of ocean surface might need to be cooled off.

The Salter Sink is a simple idea, with massive potential. Two insights make it very compelling:

Everywhere there is hot water on the surface of the ocean, there is cold water down below.

This makes us think you just need to stir the ocean up a little bit. Of course, that too would take a staggering amount of energy, but…

There is a tremendous amount of energy available – in waves.

Wave energy is often dismissed as impractical to use because it is located far from people (where we need energy). It is also difficult to harness because of the harsh conditions equipment would have to sustain.

The Salter Sink works as a wave powered pump. Waves push hot water into the top of the cylinder, which pumps the water inside down. It comes out the bottom (around 200 meters below) and mixes with colder water. This brings the temperature on the surface down over time. A Salter Sink can move about a gigawatt of thermal energy! It may take thousands of these to protect America’s Gulf region (for example) but we estimate the cost would be much lower than the damage caused by one of these storms.

This concept is delightfully simple and singularly gargantuan. It has captured our imagination here in the lab for a couple years, and we hope lots of other folks will find it interesting as well. This movie illustrates the idea, and we also have a Salter Sink White Paper with more detail.

High quality m4v video.

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  1. Posted October 23, 2009 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

    Hi Intellectual Ventures,

    Saw your company on 20/20 tonight. Ironically, I wondered just this week if there was anything man could due to stop hurricanes as I am reading the “Perfect Storm”. Anyway, I have a lot of entrepreneurial ideas and would enjoy connecting someday.



  2. Posted November 3, 2009 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

    Couldn’t this system have an adverse effect on the ecosystems at the bottoms of the pump? What sort of area would be affected – just locally or would the warmer water permeate a large area at the bottom of the ocean?

  3. Posted November 3, 2009 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    you might look into releasing liquid nitrogen as high up in the atmosphere as possible it would super cool the surrounding air causing an increase in density, resulting in a tremendous amount of cool air from the upper atmosphere descending to the ocean and cooling it, any air craft in the area or ships might be endangered by this, and warnings would have to be given in advance.

  4. Jerry Toman
    Posted November 7, 2009 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    My concern with the deployment of the Salter Sink is that, while it pretends to be able to mitigate the power of the most destructive hurricanes in the short term, it might, in effect, “bottle up” a natural and needed process which extracts excess heat that builds up in the oceans which causes problems like “coral bleaching”. Hurricanes perform the role of extracting this heat and sending it to the upper troposphere where it is more readily radiated to outer space. Intense hurricanes do this more efficiently.

    By inhibiting this process with Salter Sinks, won’t we just be “kicking the can down the road” and make the AGW problem worse as well as risk stronger storms in the future? Also, warmer water has a reduced capacity to dissolve CO2 from the air above it.

  5. Erik
    Posted December 28, 2009 at 5:43 am | Permalink

    Hope it will become an enormous success. Especially your way of re-thinking things is great. There are too many reasons not to try it, but I hope you will be able to test it properly. It sounds logical. The good news is that it’s cheap and reversible if needed.

  6. Antony Steynberg
    Posted January 12, 2010 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Jerry Toman and reserve some caution.
    As I understand it the top stagnant warm layer of the sea serves as an insulation layer and the Salter is intending on breaking that layer, allowing more energy (1000′s x GW’s!) to be loaded into the waters. Are we not lining up for a bigger bang later? The mechanism is mass energy storage, using the sea as a buffer and reducing the spike release in the form of a hurricane. Is the formation of the hurricane purely a function of sea surface temperature? Is it not as a result of movements of air bodies as a driven by different temperatures between sea, land, atmosphere and many other factors? Is simplifying it to one indicator valid? In winter colder months the Salter is going to work on and reduce the sea temp lower than avg and thus create effects on land and thus air also. The sea is known to affect the land temps immensely due to the heat sink effect. Will the nett result not only be the same hurricanes but at different conditions of temp difference? As responsible designers we are obliged to put forward the honest downsides of our machines since we “understand” them best. According to your models, what are they? What is the long term worst case? What is the long term energy dissipation release method? What are the other broader environmental effects? How are thousands of these things going to affect the wave patterns, absorbing all their energy?Is the pure “litter factor” not an issue, with thousands of these things floating out at sea?

  7. will
    Posted February 12, 2010 at 6:06 am | Permalink

    great idea, but i think bottle up energy might not be a permanent solution…
    it would be better to convert those energy to electricity using wave/wind turbine that can withstand such a harsh weather condition…
    placing large balloon with flat reflective top (something like a up-side-down pyramid design) are high atmosphere over gulf area might work… hehe or better adding solar cell to those high flying balloons and transmit back the juice to earth… (but must have cable that capable to withstand strong wind and not distrupting airplane flight…)
    just my 2cents…

  8. Posted February 17, 2010 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    I say it would be a lot easier to adapt a method referred to as “Cloud Seeding” to suppress hurricanes. Silver iodide or dry ice are usually seeded into the clouds by plane to trigger condensation. Check out the Wikipedia page

    Since you guys probably would like to design something cooler (no pun intended), I would be impressed if you retrofitted a Space Based Solar Power unit with a cooling laser capable of targeting water molecules. As a bonus it would end global warming.

  9. Jason
    Posted September 28, 2010 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    although not as elegant in some ways, this plan to use submarines to spray cold water in the right place at the right time may be easier to implement in the short term, and doesn’t require thousands of huge, permanent pumps.

  10. Orest Sison
    Posted November 27, 2010 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    My dad told me about your experiment to cool the surface of the ocean to prevent hurricanes and I am doing it for my 4th grade science experiment. I hope it will work. I have many cousins in Florida who are interested as well.

  11. Ian
    Posted December 6, 2010 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    Heat rises

  12. Rob
    Posted December 6, 2010 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    What are the proposed thermal exchange rates of the waters released at depth?

    If I understand this correctly, the sinks won’t prevent or disintegrate hurricanes completely, only retard their advance or reduce their strength? e.g. Take a category 5 down to a category 3?

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