Just Thaw And Serve

Using borrowed modeling software, researchers show that towing icebergs to water-short regions could be a viable business

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3-D Rendering courtesy Dassault Systemes

A 3-D rendering of the process of towing an iceberg in the North Atlantic

Water shortages plague a fifth of southern Europe. And with temperatures in the region forecast to rise several degrees this century — reducing rainfall another 30% — things will only get worse. Several thousand miles to the northwest, however, global warming is increasing the number of icebergs calving off Greenland; they now number about 15,000 a year. "An iceberg is a floating reservoir. And water from icebergs is the purest water ... It was formed some 10,000 years ago," explains French engineer and eco-entrepreneur Georges Mougin. All those bergs eventually dissolve in the ocean's brine. Such a waste, he says. Why not capture and haul some of them to Europe's arid south?

The idea of towing icebergs to the world's thirstiest regions goes back to the 1950s. Mougin began looking seriously at the concept in the mid-1970s. Technologies to handle such a massive undertaking didn't exist then. But they do now, thanks to Mougin, who at 86 is still working full tilt. A few years ago, he came up with the idea to enclose the bottom half of an iceberg with a skirt fashioned from insulating geotextile material to reduce melting en route. Then he imagined a scenario in which ocean currents could be used to help steer the tugboat pulling the iceberg and drastically reduce fuel consumption — a principle Mougin calls assisted drift. But a trial tow of a 7 million-ton iceberg would cost about $10 million — a sum that chilled investors.

The problem was that he couldn't show them his vision — until now. Thanks to a virtual-reality boost from French software company Dassault Systèmes, he can simulate an iceberg's entire journey from Newfoundland to the Canary Islands. The collaboration is part of an effort by Dassault, which sells high-end product-testing software to such companies as Boeing and Toyota, to offer modeling expertise to researchers like Mougin whose lofty ideas often dwarf their budgets.

Two years ago, Dassault placed its 3-D-imaging technologies and 15 of its engineers at Mougin's disposal. Many hours and algorithms later, the team concluded recently that Mougin's big idea would work. One standard-size tug traveling at 1 knot, using assisted drift, could get a skirted 7 million-ton berg to the Canaries in about 141 days with only 38% of it melting. Better yet, larger bergs would lose proportionately less, because the amount of ice that melts off the sides is fairly static.

Mougin was inspired to approach Dassault after watching a documentary that used the company's 3-D modeling to bring to life architect Jean-Pierre Houdin's theory on how the Great Pyramid of Giza was built. Dassault believes sharing the modeling software is a high-profile way to show off the cool things its products can do while simultaneously supporting scientific inquiry. "It's a way to contribute to the community of innovators," says Cédric Simard, project director. Aside from supporting innovators, Dassault gives the software to French and U.S. programs aimed at improving science, technology and engineering education in schools.

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