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

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Engineers on the iceberg project charted the journey under numerous scenarios. The model relied heavily on historical meteorologic and oceanographic data as well as forecasts in real time culled from satellites, buoys and balloons. Temperature, salinity, winds, swells, currents and eddies were all calculated; the model even factored in a fierce storm on day 22 of a trip. "The storm was no problem," Simard says. "Just like a supertanker survives one, it's really no different." The model was also able to track the melt rate and the tugboat's fuel consumption.

Using 3-D glasses, Mougin's team virtually examined the berg from all angles and inspected both the insulation skirt and the seine used to capture and tow it. "You can dive down the side of it. You can land on top of it. It's a godlike feeling, which makes it a very attractive form of simulation," says Peter Wadhams, a professor of ocean physics at Cambridge University. He's one of a team of experts who have been advising Mougin over the years. The 3-D imagery was so enthralling, some of it was later used in a TV documentary about Mougin's quest, Ice Dream, which has aired in France and several other European countries.

While ultimately proving Mougin's theories were correct, the simulation wasn't without drama. Indeed, the first trial was a disaster, which confirmed the wisdom of modeling. The simulated tug hit a huge eddy and spent a month circling in place before moving on, resulting in too much melting and heavy fuel consumption. Despite some initial hand-wringing, the necessary fix proved quite simple: moving the departure date from mid-May to mid-June. "Voilà, there were no more eddies in our route, and within about four months we did it," Simard says. "The first lesson simulation taught us was, if you want to do this project, choose the best departure date."

The next step for Mougin is to secure funding — from $2.96 million to $4.44 million — for a pilot study using a smaller fragment of ice to give the theory a real-world test. He and Wadhams got an encouraging response but no money when they sought a European Union grant a few years ago, but that was before the Dassault simulation. They expect the 3-D visuals will improve their chances of landing a grant or a commercial partner. "The 3-D simulation makes it all look and feel doable," Wadhams says.

Mougin hopes to launch the pilot test next year and advance to a full-scale trial a year or two later. He's also confident of the gambit's commercial potential and has formed a company called WPI (Water and Power from Icebergs) to exploit it. After nearly 40 years of effort, Mougin anticipates serving frozen drinks en masse soon.

This article originally appeared in the May 23, 2011 issue of TIME.

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