Could the Gulf Stream be used as a renewable energy source to supply much-needed electricity to Florida's heavily populated southern region? That's what a team of researchers from Florida Atlantic University (F.A.U.) in Boca Raton are hoping to find out from four acoustic doppler current profilers (ADCP) that they dropped into the Atlantic Ocean between five miles (eight kilometers) and 22 miles (35 kilometers) from the sands of Dania Beach. The ADCPs, which were placed in the water in February at depths between 725 feet (220 meters) and 2,115 feet (645 meters), use high-frequency, low-power sonar to measure the Gulf Stream's water velocity at different locations, according to the school's Center for Ocean Energy Technology (COET).

View a slide show of images of the ADCPs as well as illustrations of COET's future plans

COET researchers (see video of them at work) want to determine whether it is feasible to use underwater tidal turbines—like those now being tested in New York City's East River and elsewhere—to generate renewable energy from the powerful Gulf Stream without harming the underwater ecosystem. The scientists plan to gather as much information as possible about the North Atlantic's massive stream over the next eight months, before putting their prototype 20-kilowatt tidal turbine in the water. Their goal, says Howard Hanson, COET's scientific director: to pin down where the current is strongest.

The deployment of the ADCPs is the first step in COET's plans to create a National Open-ocean Energy Laboratory (NOEL) with a permanent infrastructure off the south Florida shore where makers of tidal turbines and other marine-based renewable energy technology would be able to test their devices. NOEL is expected to provide access to federal and state agencies, technology developers, and universities for testing and evaluation of ocean energy systems, from small subscale outfits to full-scale commercial complexes.

"Most companies aren't going to want to put the infrastructure in place to do it themselves," Hanson says. "Our mission is to become a national laboratory for companies to do this."