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Iceberg power

Imagine yourself nestled cozily into a deck chair on one of those gleaming white cruise ships that stroll leisurely through the South Pacific Ocean. The warm sun all but banishes unpleasant memories of Minneapolis in March. The pool awaits, and nothing is between you and the horizon except sparkling blue ocean, the faint outline of some distant archipelago, and . . . an iceberg.

Iceberg? Did the man say iceberg, down here in the environs of balmy breezes and sun-bleached sands? Yep.

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And this is no stray ice cube. It's more like a floating frozen wasteland the size of Manhattan. Not to worry, though, about the specter of a Titanic-like crash. The captain of the iceberg is in direct contact with your cruise ship captain, and the berg may be neither nimble nor quick, but a hard right rudder effects some change of course.

Captain of the iceberg? What is this, some Micronesian mirage, a trick of the trade winds, a meteorological misfit, a persistent snowstorm out of South Dakota come to wreak havoc on your tan?

Right now, the whole thing is barely more than a gleam in the eye of Joe Connel. But if things go his way, the image could mean an agricultural boon to the world. Basically, he wants to drive, not tow, an iceberg from the Antarctic to Australia, or Baja California (Mexico), or perhaps India. The purpose is a reallocation of resources, a more equal distribution of the fresh and usable water from the places where it is the most bountiful but least used to the places where it is scarcest but most needed, such as the above countries.

About 75 percent of the earth's fresh water is locked up in the arctic regions. The problem is how to get at it.

The notion of moving iceberg to arid lands has been kicking around for several years. Saudi Prince Muhammad FAisal, one of King Khalid's nephews and head of the Saudi Saline Water Conversion Corporation, has spent millions of dollars to research the possibility of towing icebergs to his dry land, but the idea has proved quixotic if not impossible. Towing a big enough iceberg for a year's supply of water would take upward of 10 oceangoing tugboats, burning between 80 million to 100 million gallons of fuel. Too expensive, even for a country where money and fuel are no object.

Enter Joseph A. Connell and his plan for a self-propelled iceberg, one that would consume next to no fuel. It would, in fact, create its own energy. The whole thing sounds pretty screwball at first, and as Mr. Connell explains the scheme over a bowl of clam chowder at a coffee shop off the San Diego Freeway, a supposedly objective reporter is inclined to regard Mr. Connell and the clam chowder with equal amounts of suspicion.

However, Mr. Connell is not exactly an unknown. He holds 80 worldwide patents -- 81 if he is granted the patent on his mechanized iceberg -- and invented Cryostart, a system for starting jet engines which is used at airports around the world. He is a recognized expert in the field of cryogenics (the science of the very cold), and a dabbler in energy matters. He designed a successful garbage-into-methane plant in the Los Angeles area and has received a decided "maybe" from Ford on an energy-stingy automobile engine design. Officially, he is president of the Du Pont-Connell Company near Los Angeles.

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So when he talks, I listen. At the very least, he makes better sense than the chowder.

"Iceberg are always calving [breaking away] in the Antarctic. The biggest was larger than Belgium, and icebergs 10 miles long and 1,000 to 1,200 feet thick are fairly common. They are an obvious source of fresh water, that comes in convenient, tow-away packages. The problem is how to get the icebergs out of the Antarctic. People have been talking about doing that since 1964 . . . but towing has been found to be impractical. Then we get into the concept of doing it without fuel."

Mr. Connell's idea is to milk energy out of the iceberg, capitalizing on the berg's being significantly colder -- by 10 to 20 degrees -- than the water it floats in. His system would use that temperature difference to change a substance, most likely freon, from liquid into gas. The gas would then drive a turbine which would spin a propeller which would push the iceberg.

The freon, in liquid form, would be pumped under pressure into a heat exchanger under water where the warmer temperatures would convert the freon into gas. The gas is then pumped into a turbine. The gas expands. The turbine starts whirring, to the tune of 10,000 horsepower, and power in the form of electricity comes crackling out the other end, eventually driving a propeller. The freon gas leaves the turbine and heads for another heat exchanger, this one buried in the ice, where the colder temperatures turn the gas back into liquid. It is then pressurized and starts the cycle again, and again, and again.

Mr. Connell foresees 10 to 12 such power plants on one iceberg, manned by a crew of about 40. The iceberg would be so big as to require rapid transit -- a monorail, perhaps -- to ferry crew members from one end to the other. He figures it would cost somewhere between $65 and $100 million, but he points out that all the equipment could be reused on the next iceberg, "so the final cost is really much less," between $15 million and $30 million.

If that seems like a lot of money, it might be interesting to consider that California has, to date, spent over $2 billion on a plan to bring more water to the southern half of the state, and the first drop is still years and megadollars away.

"Most of this is pretty straightforward stuff," Mr. Connell says of the system, and he readily admits that the technology involved is borrowed from OTEC (Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion), a design to create electrical power out of the temperature difference between deep ocean water and that close to the surface. Industrial giants such as Westinghouse Electrical and TRW, as well as the federal government, have invested millions of dollars in OTEC. A small OTEC plant, 50 kilowatts, is currently in experimental use of Hawaii.

Mr. Connell also admits that while the technology may not be as exotic as it sounds, the notion of using it to drive an iceberg is, well, "slightly crazy." What is not crazy, however, is the need for water. The world faces a global food shortage of critical dimensions in the next 20 years, according to the President's Commission on World Hunger, and the problems demand a significant increase in food production, now.

A ton of wheat requires 300,000 gallons of water. A ton of rice needs 800, 000 gallons, as does a ton of cotton. A ton of the fertilizer needed to grow them all drinks up 150,000 gallons of water. It takes 1 million gallons of water to refine crude oil into 1,000 barrels (42,000 gallons) of gasoline.

In the meantime, water consumption is growing -- per capita use in California , for example, doubles every 10 years -- while the availability of water shrinks. By some estimates, the oceans are rising at a rate of 2 feet per century, and as they rise coastal water wells become contaminated with salt water. The world's deserts are expanding, and pollution renders significant chunks of the world's fresh water unusable.

In the US, per capita consumption of water runs a whopping 615,000 gallons per year, with 160 gallons a day per person going to domestic use alone. There are some countries in the world where that figure is about 3 gallons per day. Only 15 percent of the world s population even has running water.

Water problems are by no means limited to the poorer nations. In 1985, California, which grows 75 percent of this nation's vegetables and fruit, will lose 680,000 acre-feet (about 18.5 billion gallons) of the water it now draws from the Colorado River.

"One iceberg anchored off the coast of southern California would fill that need for five years." (Actually, one such iceberg might solve more problems than just water supply. Mr. Connell figures that his turbine system could put out 500,000 kilowatts of electricity. "People have suggested that I leave the power plant on the iceberg once it's berthed and use it for power generation.")

On a larger scale, enough water, in the form of icebergs, breaks away from the polar cap each year to cover the annual water needs of 5 billion people: 430 cubic miles of ice, representing more fresh water than all the rivers on earth put together.

Mr. Connell's icebergs would have to come from Antarctica, where the bergs come flat instead of peaked, as they do in the Arctic.

"The bench mark is to arrive at the destination with about a cubic mile of ice. That's 1 trillion gallons of water. We would start out with an iceberg about two miles wide by five miles long." He figures that the iceberg would lose about 8 billion gallons of water a day during the voyage, but after a 6,000 mile , 120-day journey, would still represent $200 million worth of water, "enough to irrigate 338,000 acres in one year. The biggest cost lies in preparing the land for irrigation. That would cost about $1,000 an acre."

Once in port, the iceberg would be fitted with a bottomless cocoon. Since fresh water is lighter, less dense, than salt water, the water melting off the iceberg would rise to the top of the cocoon and could be pumped off easily.

What country would have the distinct privilege of seeing a Manhattan-sized chunk of ice anchored off its coast? Mr. Connell would like to see the first one, at least, go to a third-world country. "They need the water the most."

On the other hand, two Australian cities, Perth and Adelaide, have expressed interest in his plan to bring icebergs to their climes, and Australia is a short 3,000-mile journey. "Full speed ahead" on an iceberg ranges from 1 1/2 to 2 knots. Northern India is a prime candidate, since the irrigation setup already exists there.

Baja California also could use its own iceberg, speculates Mr. Connell. "If Mexico irrigated Baja for agriculture they could be self- sufficient in food and have enough to export." The Humboldt Current, which runs from the tip of South America north to the equator, would give some fortunate berg a 2-knot boost in its jog up to Baja.

He hopes to interest the World Bank's International Monetary Fund (IMF) in the iceberg transport business, and the concept has piqued the IMF's curiosity enough for it to request a feasibility study. There's a catch, though. The IMF wants Mr. Connell to fork out the necessary $300,000 for the study. Mr. Connell would just as soon the IMF picked up the tab. The Saudis have also sent out some tentative feelers, but nothing too substantial.

Though the technology for the actual power generation is straightforward, the fact that the apparatus will be mounted on an iceberg suddenly makes the whole project very complicated. Saudi Prince Faisal has sponsored four international conferences on iceberg utilization, the most recent being this year's in Cambridge, England, and none of the scientists involved has been able to conclude that icebergs are, in fact, deliverable.

"We don't know what the real integrity is of an iceberg in the open ocean," says Dr. W. F. Weeks, a member of the US Army Corps of Engineers' Cold Region Research Laboratory in Hanover, N.H., and a major proponent of iceberg utilization. "What if the thing splits in half and then splits into quarters? We don't know the likelihood of that happening. There would also be severe handling problems with something that big."

He also points out that the steep, vertical walls that form the sides of an iceberg fall of easily and frequently. "I wouldn't walk to the edge of an iceberg. There is no way that would be considered safe." Mr. Connell's design calls for 10 to 12 propellors placed around the sides of an iceberg. The considerable amount of melting presents another problem for this design, since much of those 8 billion gallons a day he expects would presumably come off the sides of the iceberg.

Dr. Weeks says the potential for iceberg use, particularly for power generation, is considerable, "but nothing coming out of these conferences indicates a simple solution to the problems of delivery." Dr. Weeks does not know of Mr. Connell or his theory of sel- propelled icebergs. Asked to respond in a general way to a description of Mr. Connell's design, Dr. Weeks noted that Mr. Connell is an unknown in the field ("If he has a workable design, why hasn't he surfaced at one of these conferences?"), and said that "he may know a lot about cryogenics, but what does he know about icebergs?"

Israel and even southern California give ample evidence of the possibility of making a desert bloom, and Mr. Connell's plan does have a ring of rationality to it. Besides, it seems difficult to imagine a simple solution to the problem of hauling off Manhattan-sized icebergs. There has even been some suggestion out here that if Mr. Connell's design works, he might turn his attention to driving Manhattan off, perhaps as a gift to some underdeveloped nation.

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