Yaara Crane: Engineering a Floating Town, June 29, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Yaara Crane
Aboard NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson
June 22, 2013 – July 3, 2013

My roommate, Ensign Kristin, is teaching me how to steer at the helm.

Mission: Hydrographic Survey
Geographical area of cruise: Mid-Atlantic
Date: Saturday, June 29, 2013

Latitude: 38.81°N
Longitude: 75.06°W

Weather Data from Bridge:
Wind Speed:  13.50 knots|
Surface Water Temperature: 22.61°C
Air Temperature:  23.30°C
Relative Humidity: 87.00%
Barometric Pressure: 1001.38mb

TJ sunset
Sunset over the bow of the Thomas Jefferson.

Science and Technology Log

At any given time, the Thomas Jefferson is home to about 30-40 individuals. These individuals come from all walks of life to become deck hands, engineers, stewards, scientists, or officers. Yesterday, I spent a couple of hours with Chief Engineer Tom learning about how his team of engineers works to keep this home afloat and functional. There are currently 4 licensed engineers, and 3 QMEDs (Qualified Members of the Engine Department) aboard the TJ.

engineering console
The engineering control console keeps and eye on all of the mechanics of the ship. If the bridge loses control, the engineers could steer the ship from here!

How do you become an engineer on a NOAA ship?  There are two routes to becoming an engineer on a NOAA ship. If you wanted to start working immediately aboard a ship, you could apply to start as an undocumented engineer. You are required to work 180 days at sea, pass a basic safety course, and then would become eligible to take a test to become a QMED. Another 1080 days would make you eligible to take a licensing test to become third engineer. From there, time and more licensing tests help you work up the ranks. There are a myriad of licensing tests that depend on the horsepower of the ship you want to work on. For example, most NOAA ships require the same license, but the NOAA ship Ron Brown has more horsepower and requires what is called an unlimited license. All licensing falls under the purview of the U.S. Coast Guard and various federal regulations. A different route to becoming an engineer involves attending a four-year program at a maritime academy. The maritime academy gives graduates the necessary skills to move straight into a third engineer position because it includes internships and semester at sea opportunities. The students from the academy must still take all of the same licensing tests. Clearly, engineers must have a great amount of knowledge as part of their toolkit no matter their background.

What really stood out to me was when Tom mentioned the fact that the word engineer comes from engine. The primary purpose of the engineer is to make sure that the ship has enough power for all of the tasks that happen around the clock. The TJ has two engines for propulsion and three generators for electricity that can be put online to boost the power output. When I was in the engine room yesterday, second engineer Steve was on watch and communicating with the bridge about having more power for their bow thruster. The bow thruster increases the maneuverability of the ship when it is slowing down, such as when anchoring. Steve made sure that Generator 1 was providing the energy needed for this particular task while Generator 2 was providing power for the rest of the ship’s needs. Overall, the Thomas Jefferson can hold approximately 198,000 gallons of diesel fuel, and uses about 1,500 gallons a day for all of its operations.

RO comparison
Can you tell which of these reverse osmosis machines is working, and which one is offline?

Most of the engineering equipment comes in duplicate just in case anything breaks down. For example, there are two reverse osmosis machines whose purpose is to turn seawater into potable water. One of them is currently down, so it is imperative that we have a second aboard. Reverse osmosis is the process by which seawater is pushed through a semi-permeable membrane in order to filter out the solutes, and only allow the water solvent through. The solute (sea salt) can then be dumped right back into the ocean. The water that is collected must be chlorinated before use, but will then go on to the galley, bathrooms, laundry, etc. The TJ can store around 21,500 gallons of freshwater and uses about 2,500 gallons of fresh water a day.

The internal workings of reverse osmosis. Image credit: http://www.nrdc.org/onearth/04sum/saline_popup.htm

When being built, NOAA ships are outfitted for water usage in different ways, and Tom is busy planning how to make the ship more energy efficient. The TJ does not have the ability to use and recycle gray water or sea water very efficiently. Some NOAA ships have the ability to use seawater in the toilets, but the TJ does not. Have you ever thought of how much water is used when flushing a toilet? Well, you might have to think of that if you live in a desert area, or on a ship! Tom will be able to reduce the amount of water used in each flush by about 1.4 gallons with a simple valve that he plans on installing when the ship is docked for some maintenance work this summer. If we assume that there are 35 people on board the ship, and each person flushes 5 times a day, then the TJ can save 245 gallons of water each day with just a simple upgrade. This amounts to a reduction in water use of around 10% a day!

Tom has thought through many other types of upgrades, most not so simple, to better put to use the resources on board. Instead of using reverse osmosis, some NOAA ships make water through an evaporator. An evaporator is a much more efficient way of creating water because it needs a reduced pressure and average temperature near 160°F. On ships that have evaporators, water is diverted into pipes near the heat of the main engine so that the waste energy created by the engine can be transferred to reduce the amount of energy needed in the evaporator.

Although I have a particular interest in wastewater treatment and energy usage, these are by no means the extent of the engineer’s tasks. They are also responsible for checking fuel levels, keeping the air conditioning running (crucial considering the heat generated by the servers required to hold all of the ship’s scientific data), maintaining a workshop, being the ship’s electricians, and much more. Finally, they also work to keep up the morale of everyone in this floating town.

 Personal Log

I am trying to keep myself busy learning about all of the aspects of the ship. It is difficult to throw myself into the data analysis because the CARIS program is so complex; however, I spend lots of time watching the scientists plug at it. I have also been spending a lot of time on the bridge where some of the officers have been letting me help to collect hourly weather data, and teaching me to take navigational fixes. It is interesting to see that even with all of the digital data, the bridge officers must still take time to read a wall-mounted barometer and interpret cloud formations in the sky. For navigation, the officers still need to know how to use a compass and protractor, which brought me back to 1998 and my days in geometry class.

I also love hearing travel stories from the many people on board. Keith, a deckhand, has travelled all over the world on a NOAA ship based in Hawaii. It motivates me to continue to find opportunities to expand my horizons and see the world. I hope that I can also motivate my students back at Annandale to get creative with their ambitions.

 Did You Know?

Officers must be on watch 24/7, even when at anchor. To help preserve their night vision after the sun sets, the bridge is stocked with red plastic squares which are mounted over the screens to help minimize glare from white light.

night vision
The monitors on the bridge at night.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s