Great Influencers in Energy: Lord Kelvin: When Electricity and Water Do Mix.

June 26, 2018






By: Keri Bailey

Sir William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin of Largs, was born on June 26th, 1824 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He was a famed physicist, mathematician, engineer, and inventor. Throughout his life, Thomson’s main focus was the practical implementation of science. He achieved fame through his work on submarine telegraphy and was employed as a scientific adviser in the laying of the Transatlantic telegraph cables in 1857-58 and 1865-66, for which he was knighted by Queen Victoria. In 1892, he became the first scientist to be honored with a peerage and took the title Baron Kelvin from Kelvin Grove in Glasgow, where his grandmother had lived. While you may not be familiar with Sir William Thomson; the name, Lord Kelvin, will be forever linked to energy not just for his lifetime achievements, but for his incredible scientific legacy.

Lord Kelvin did more than any other scientist up to his time in developing accurate methods for measuring electricity. Motivated by challenges of his time, Lord Kelvin was an adept inventor. He established the Kelvin balance or Ampere balance, for the precise specification of the ampere, the standard unit of electric current. Lord Kelvin realized a need to define extremely low temperatures precisely, an “absolute thermometric scale” a powerful concept with far-reaching potential. Beyond just a simple relative temperature, where objects are referred to as hotter or colder than something else, the absolute, thermodynamic temperature of an object provides information on how much kinetic energy its atoms and molecules have. Kelvin’s definition of the absolute temperature scale became especially important in the field of superconductivity. And in a more common-place application, the Kelvin scale includes the measurement of color temperature for items such as light bulbs and LED screens. Enjoy a ‘warm’ color light? The yellowish spectrum closely resembles what a hot object at a 3,000 Kelvin (K) temperature would naturally radiate. A cooler blue light color temperature of 5,000-5,600 K is typically labeled ‘daylight’ or ‘full spectrum’ in relation to the temperature of the sun’s surface, which is about 5,800 K.

Water, Water Everywhere – So Let’s Make Electricity

In 1893, the international Niagara Falls Commission decided on the design of the Niagara Falls power station. At the head of the commission was Lord Kelvin who asked Westinghouse Electric Manufacturing Company to harness the power of the falls. The Westinghouse hydroelectric system was based on the work of Nikola Tesla. Since his childhood, Tesla had dreamed of harnessing the power of the great natural wonder. It was the first large-scale, alternating current electric generating plant in the world. When the system went live, the first power reached Buffalo at midnight, November 16, 1896. The Niagara Falls Gazette reported that day, “The turning of a switch in the big powerhouse at Niagara completed a circuit which caused the Niagara River to flow uphill.” At first, power was only supplied to Buffalo, but within a few years, the power lines were electrifying New York City, illuminating Broadway, powering the trolley railways, and subway system.

Today, multiple hydropower stations are still in operation on both the American and Canadian sides of the Falls, including the Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant, the third largest in the United States. Every evening, when the demand for electricity is much lower, and the tourists have gone, the Moses plant uses power pumps to divert water from the Niagara River and push it into the upper reservoir behind the Lewiston Dam. During the following day, when electrical demand is high, part of the potential energy of the water in the Lewiston reservoir is converted into electricity at the Lewiston Dam, and then flows into the forebay, where it falls through the turbines of the Moses plant.

The Power of the Ocean

Lord Kelvin’s interest in water didn’t stop there; maritime issues also inspired him. Besides his work on the Transatlantic cable he also worked on improving the nautical compass to account for the interference from the metal used in the modern construction of ships as well as constructed a harmonic analyzer, where an analog computer was used to predict tidal rhythms. Tidal measurements are still of particular interest even today, especially when you consider the potential of tidal energy. Lord Kelvin might be pleased to know that Scotland is currently the proving ground for some impressive tidal energy projects.

Orkney, Scotland is more known for idyllic coastal landscapes, Neolithic structures, and gentle rolling farmlands then for being the hub of marine renewables. But, earlier this year, phase-1 of MeyGen’s tidal stream array was completed off the coast of Orkney and entered into what is expected to be a 25-year operational period. To the north of the site is the uninhabited island of Stroma, which creates a natural channel with the mainland that accelerates the millions of tons of water flowing between the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean every day. The array of underwater turbines makes use of these high flows (some of the fastest flowing waters in the U.K) and the ideal medium water depths of the channel. Since connecting to the grid, the Edinburgh-based developer said the units have already generated about 6 GWh-worth of power, setting a new world record for tidal stream monthly production in March with 1,400 MWh. The completed array will eventually have 269 turbines, enabling it to provide enough electricity to power 175,000 homes.

Microsoft also looked to Orkney for its latest experiment, Project Natick. A marriage of cloud computing and sustainability, Project Natick leveraged submarine technology and Orkney’s sustainable tidal and wind-powered grid to develop a self-sufficient, 40-foot-long, underwater data center. Data centers are notorious energy consumers, due to the required cooling they need. Microsoft’s development team adapted a heat-exchange process commonly used for cooling submarines for the underwater data center which houses 12 racks and 864 servers. The system pipes seawater directly through the radiators on the back of each of the 12 server racks and back out into the ocean. “Colocation with marine renewable energy is a step toward realizing Microsoft’s vision of data centers with their own sustainable power supply,” explained Christian Belady, general manager of cloud infrastructure strategy and architecture in Microsoft’s cloud and enterprise division.

And Scotland is not alone; marine energy projects are looking to be implemented worldwide. A pilot program for marine energy development is currently being tested in Washington’s Puget Sound. Massachusetts has a tidal technology testing site established in Cape Cod Canal while the Fundy Ocean Research Centre for Energy (FORCE) in Nova Scotia is Canada’s leading test center for tidal current technology. Bermuda has signed an agreement to purchase two 20 MW wave energy parks in the Caribbean, and the planned development of a wave park is set to be installed off the Canary Islands. Northern Ireland, India, China, and Japan are all in the process of piloting tidal stream arrays as well. Marine energy is still a growing market that has enormous potential according to the World Energy Council; these current initiatives could demonstrate tidal energy as a competitive renewable energy source.

In acknowledgment of his contribution to electrical standardization, the International Electrotechnical Commission elected Lord Kelvin as its first President. Lord Kelvin was appointed a Privy Counselor and one of the first members of the new Order of Merit. He received the order from the King in August 1902 and was sworn a member of the council at Buckingham Palace. These achievements mark a career that was dedicated to putting science and technology to pragmatic use for a greater good. Lord Kelvin’s appreciation for the sea and electricity helped cement his name in history, so here’s to the scientists, the engineers, and the innovators who look ahead and dream of affordable, renewable energy and see potential in the tides.


Photo credit: The Smithsonian Archives