Quarter Century of Ocean Technology

By: P Jalihal
In the last 25 years, the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) has progressed from developing technology for shallow waters to deep waters. Coastal communities too have been provided access to desalinised potable water and have benefited from the tsunami warning system.
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The National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) is the only institute in the country working on technology for the oceans. In the quarter century of its existence, the achievements are truly remarkable. Technology development has been taken up from shallow water depths to deep waters. The areas of activity encompass societal benefits, strategic needs, technology development and world class infrastructure. The societal achievements include low temperature thermal desalination plants serving the drinking water requirements of the islands, ocean observation systems including tsunami warning system which can help in weather forecasting, cage culture for mud crab and lobster and open sea cage culture for marine fin fish, which have been demonstrated in the Andaman Islands and in the Tamil Nadu coastal regions, shore protection techniques and the like. Strategic requirements and challenges of deep sea technology necessitate the development of mining systems, remotely operable vehicles and the project on manned submersible and these are progressing well. Infrastructures developed include vessels, acoustic test facility and hyperbaric chamber to support technology development in niche areas. Capacity building in the form of cooperative efforts with academia as well as indigenous development has been a significant part of the activities of the institute. The phenomenal achievements of the institute make it well positioned for stepping into the future decades.  India with a long coastline and a large exclusive economic zone (EEZ) warranted extensive studies related to the ocean, not only for oceanographic parameters but also for technology development. It was imperative to build an understanding of issues related to coastal and deep waters in order to harness resources in an environment friendly manner.

NIOT was the first autonomous institute set up in the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras, under the then Department of Ocean Development (DOD) in 1993. While it began with a modest budget and objectives, its rapid progress encouraged larger funding and programmes from the Government.

NIOT, registered as a society on November 5, 1993 at Chennai, was seen as a project executing authority that would also sponsor and monitor projects thus serving as a technical arm of the DOD. Four mission areas were identified:

  • Commercialisation of wave energy
  • Deep sea technology and ocean mining
  • Coastal zone management
  • Marine instrumentation

These have now grown into much larger areas with many more projects and with new domains.

Developments in Research and Infrastructure

The institute brought together qualified and motivated scientists to pursue ocean technology development in a multidisciplinary manner. In the early years, progress was made in all four of the above-mentioned areas. The wave energy plant in Vizhinjam, Kerala was funded by the then DOD to IIT, Madras. After the formation of NIOT, since the founder Director was one of the coordinators of this project, work continued in conjunction with NIOT. However, IIT being an academic institution, the continuation of such site related projects was seen as better dealt with by NIOT. In 1996, the NIOT took over this plant.  Several power modules with different turbines were tested including the wells turbine and the impulse turbine. The bi-directional impulse turbine gave the best efficiency. This was further connected to a variable speed alternator to power the world’s first wave powered Reverse Osmosis (RO) plant to successfully generate fresh water. This plant generating fresh water out of sea water using energy from the sea has been very much cited in wave energy literature in recent times. Finally, the first ever wave powered desalination system was commissioned successfully.

In 1997, the Vessel Management Cell was established to manage two coastal research vessels Sagar Purvi and Sagar Pashimi. At the same time, the National Data Buoy Programme (NDBP) was initiated to collect and process the oceanographic and meteorological data on a real time basis.

In 2000, the fledgling institute was able to access fifty acres of land in Chennai, to set up a new campus to cater to its growing needs. The mission on ocean energy was reoriented to include ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC). The technical advances grew rapidly with signing of agreements with the University of Siegen, Germany, for the deep sea mining system as also for taking up tasks like waste load assimilation capacity and development of EIA guidelines with the Integrated Coastal and Marine Area Management (ICMAM), an attached office of the then DOD.

Within a short period, several technology development programmes were taken up and the Institute’s expertise grew. In 1999, NIOT began to offer industrial consultancy services in areas like bathymetry survey, Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) studies and shore protection. The laboratory spaces and offices in the new campus became functional in the year 2000. Two large programmes—Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) and Deep Sea Mining were simultaneously managed despite several challenges. Around this time several state-of-the-art facilities were also built. One that deserves mention is the acoustic test facility with an acoustic tank of dimensions 16 x 9 x 7 m. Successful satellite data communication was also established during this period through the INSAT (ISRO) that helped facilitate the data buoy programme further.

While the initial momentum with the wave energy programme, coastal engineering activities, deep sea mining and marine instrumentation were unscaled, as mission mode programmes, today NIOT covers more than ten areas of technical research with significant deliverables. From coastal shallow waters to a depth of over 6,000 m, NIOT’s achievements in the past quarter century has been significant.

NIOT achieved international acclaim for the first ever low temperature thermal desalination plant established in the isles of Lakshadweep in 2005, which was followed by the installation of two more plants in Agatti and Minicoy. Great strides in this sector with the demonstration of an off-shore barge mounted desalination plant put India in the forefront globally. This also led to significant capacity building in this area. Success has also been achieved in developing smaller wave energy and hydrokinetic devices and upscaling is in progress now. A small hydrokinetic device using tidal currents of capacity 100 W was demonstrated in the Andaman Islands in 2016. This is now being scaled up to 5 kW since there is a need for off grid units of such ratings. A wave powered navigational buoy also has been successfully demonstrated in 2017 and deployed at Kamarajar Port Channel.

A large scale low temperature thermal desalination plant using the condenser reject heat is currently being installed in the Tuticorin Thermal Power Station, (under the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board). Design for 10 million litres per day, the offshore desalination plant off Chennai is also now ready with the help of industry. Desalinations plants are being installed in six more islands in Lakshadweep, while the first ever OTEC powered desalination plant is being set up in Lakshadweep. This holds tremendous challenges including the longest cold water pipe till date compared to the earlier desalination plants since colder water from deeper depth is required for OTEC. It will also need the OTEC turbine, which has never been designed in India till date.

Niche areas for developing technologies for deep waters are seeing significant development with successful deployments of remotely operable submersibles, which have brought back images of the sea floor and marine fauna, showcasing the dark recesses of the deep sea. A portable Remotely Operable Vehicles (ROV) developed indigenously has been deployed in 2015 in the polar waters
of Antarctica.

In another interesting development, mining machines are being readied for deployment at 6,000 m. These machines are undergoing several sub system level trials as we speak. It is a proud moment for NIOT as the programme places India amongst the top leaders in deep sea technology. Also, NIOT will soon be deploying a manned submersible in the deep sea, which is a huge technological leap and can provide a fillip to better nuanced marine research. A gamut of products needed for ocean observations, such as the autonomous underwater profiling drifter (AUPD) and the drifter buoy ‘Pradyu’ have been developed indigenously by NIOT, saving India expensive imported instrumentation. The Indian drifters use INSAT geostationary satellites for data communication and are designed to collect 24 observations per day compared to 4-6 observations by Argo satellite based drifters. This high frequency measurement will improve the mapping of eddy currents in the ocean. NIOT, in fact, is the first point of contact in the chain of ocean observations for the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES).

NIOT manages, through its central system, a network of satellite linked data buoys. Once received this data is relayed to the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS). The data is also used by the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) for weather forecasting / hindcasting and for long-term climate change studies. NIOT thus plays a pivotal role in the prediction of weather and oceanic catastrophes like tsunamis. The concept involved in the tsunami detection and reporting system developed by the NIOT is similar to the robust and proven Deep Ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART) developed by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This twin buoy system comprises of Bottom Pressure Recorder (BPR) acoustically linked to a surface buoy system. By monitoring and analysing any such changes, sub-sea detectors can be used to trigger an alarm that sends a warning message to a moored buoy-mounted receiver on the sea surface. The buoy, in turn, relays the message via Inmarsat satellite datalink to a control centre that can issue a warning to vulnerable communities. India joined the elite group of countries such as the USA, Norway and the UK to develop functional Tsunami Buoy system. The data is shared with National Data Buoy Center (NDBC), the USA through Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Service (INCOIS) and contributed to the development of Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) approved Data Buoy Cooperation Panel (DBCP) guidelines for Tsunameter.

In 2014, a major milestone was achieved when IndARC, the first Indian moored underwater observatory, was deployed in the Arctic waters. The data obtained by IndARC will understandably add impetus to research on climate change from a regional to a global perspective. Other activities include development of buried object scanning sonar (BOSS) and ambient noise measurement systems which are of importance to the Navy as also development of vector sensor arrays.

Fostering Science

NIOT has been generating revenue through various environmental impact assessment (EIA) studies and executing coastal related projects. It has made a big contribution on the Kalpasar survey for mapping the dam corridor. The infrastructure available and the expertise in marine survey have made NIOT probably the only organisation capable of handling such an activity in difficult waters. The Kalpasar project by NIOT is aimed at finding a suitable dam site as well as studying the changes in hydrodynamic and sedimentation pattern in the Gulf of Khambhat as the result of the dam construction. The scope of work, which includes geophysical survey along revised dam alignment, bathymetry survey in Gulf of Khambhat and hydrodynamic and sediment model studies, impact of dam on either site (East and west coast) of the Gulf, dam break scenarios, reservoir dispersion simulation and related measurement (tide, wave, current and Met-ocean parameters) in the Gulf of Khambhat to fix the dam height.

The Institute has developed expertise in shoreline management by engineering interventions and a wave atlas has also been created for the entire Indian coast. Extreme events which hitherto have not been formally quantified and play an important role in designing coastal structures are being studied using field measurements at wave breaking areas in islands, which can help improve structural designs. As a part of Indian Ocean Observation Network (OON), NIOT started operating and maintaining a network of High Frequency Radar (HFR) system along the Indian coast, known as Indian Coastal Ocean Radar Network (ICORN). It is a land based remote sensing system capable of measuring surface currents as far as 200 km from the coast and waves and wind direction nearly 100 km offshore. These systems operate at a spatial resolution of 6 km and temporal resolution of one hour and have immense potential for good quality data.

Material studies are also being carried out for improved cold water conduit designs for applications in desalination and energy activities. NIOT has made societal contributions in the area of marine biotechnology—by demonstrating open sea cage culture and transferring the same to the fishing community. NIOT is working with the National Institute of Wind Energy for offshore wind turbines. The first offshore wind mast was installed by NIOT in Jakhau in Gujarat and data for offshore wind profile is continuously being collected for that area. This will pave the way for having offshore wind turbines in Indian waters.

More than 200 marine microalgae were screened for bio-fuel and nutraceutical production and a method was developed for the production of bio-fuel, along with nutraceuticals namely lutein, chlorella growth factor and fatty acids-carotenoid complex from Chlorella vulgaris.

Novel deep sea marine microbes were isolated and cultured using high pressure retainable water sampler and high pressure deep sea microbial cultivation system. New secondary metabolite for biomedical and environmental applications was extracted.

In-situ soil tester has been developed to measure accurately the in situ bearing and shear strength of the soil at Manganese nodule mining site in Central Indian Ocean Basin (CIOB) for proper design of the Integrated Mining system for Manganese nodule mining and also for assessment of in-situ soil properties to facilitate safe deployment of deep sea mining machines. Initially in 2006, an electro-hydraulic in-situ soil tester was developed jointly with Sevmorgeo, Russia and tested at 5,200 m depth, which was later upgraded. Subsequently, NIOT had developed and tested a fully electrical Remotely Operable Sub-sea in-situ Soil Tester at 5,462 m water depth in the Central Indian Ocean Basin (CIOB) in October 2011.

NIOT has a fleet of research vessels which has been regularly used for scientific activities. The vessel Sagar Nidhi, is an ice class dynamic positioning (DP) class II vessel and it is the First Indian Flagged Research Vessel to reach Antarctic waters during January, 2010. To more new Coastal Research Vessels—Sagar Tara and Sagar Anveshika being built at Kolkata, will be added to the NIOT fleet shortly. NIOT is near completing an extensive EEZ survey as well. For accommodating the larger vision and vast technological challenges NIOT needed to establish a world class facility on the sea front. The facility has been procured in 2013 to bolster technological development in the arena.

The societal impact of many of the NIOT programmes such as cage culture, data for weather prediction, shore protection, etc., has been well accepted. But, that is not all. Beach restoration using soft methods such as beach nourishment was found to be pragmatic as it not only protects the coast but also maintains its natural equilibrium. The method was successfully used to restore the natural beach in the city of Puducherry.


After a quarter century of impressive development, NIOT is now poised to explore deeper and more complex areas of the ocean, which are yet to be explored and addressed. A manned submersible is currently being developed with a rating of 6,000 m which will be truly challenging. Powering the low temperature thermal desalination (LTTD) technology with OTEC is also underway. This project will have many firsts with the longest cold water pipe. The turbine developed for this will also be a first powering desalination. NIOT’s tremendous achievements in the realms of ocean technology have paved the path towards greater achievements in the ocean sector in the coming years.

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