‘Sensor Fish’ to help engineers design fish-friendly dam turbines

‘Sensor Fish’ to help engineers design fish-friendly dam turbines

Technology News |
By Rich Pell

Developed to help understand what happens to fish as they pass through turbulent waters and turbines at hydroelectric facilities, PNNL’s Sensor Fish is a small autonomous device filled with sensors that analyze the physical stressors that fish – such as juvenile salmon – experience when passing through or around dams. The technology was recently licensed to ATS.

The sensors provide dam operators and fisheries researchers with accurate, physical measurements such as acceleration, pressure, rotational velocity, and orientation, which convey what real fish experience during downstream passage. Each sensor provides roughly 2,000 measurements per second and typically takes less than two minutes to pass through the dam due to the water’s velocity.

“The vast majority of juvenile salmon and steelhead passing through the turbines survive without injury in the Columbia River Basin,” says Daniel Deng, a Laboratory Fellow at PNNL. “Still, we want to understand more about the injuries and mortality that do occur from abrupt pressure changes in dam turbine chambers. The Sensor Fish provides information to help engineers design more fish-friendly turbines going forward.”

When the Sensor Fish comes out on the other side of the dam, an automatic retrieval system brings it to the surface. Radio signals and flashing LED lights from the Sensor Fish allow them to be collected quickly from boats stationed nearby.

Up to now, says the laboratory, the Sensor Fish has been used in many field studies, with individual Sensor Fish being built by researchers in their lab at PNNL. Now, with the technology licensed to ATS, the manufacturing process can be streamlined, and more hydropower operators and researchers will be able to put it to use.

ATS president Peter Kuechle says, “There is a big need for the type of data provided by the Sensor Fish. Mature hydropower industries in the U.S. and Europe hope to modify operations in order to help fish survive. In Europe, regulations insist on testing for this information, and certainly there’s a need for the data in emerging hydropower projects globally.”

The company has also licensed other fish technologies developed at PNNL, including the Juvenile Salmon Acoustic Telemetry System (JSATS) and its advanced decoder software that can track fish passage through dams and beyond, and also monitor fish behavior. The JSATS transmitters and battery are small enough that they can be injected into young fish — eliminating the need to surgically implant a tag, which puts extra stress on a fish.

The JSATS includes the smallest acoustic transmitters in the world. PNNL has also recently developed an even smaller tag technology that allows for research on the tiniest fish including juvenile eel and lamprey.

“This new acoustic fish tag meets the Army Corps of Engineers’ JSATS specifications and weighs less than one one-hundredth of an ounce,” says Kuechle. “The JSATS technology is complementary to our long history offering innovative and cost-effective wildlife tracking products and we’re proud to have supplied the devices to the Army Corps this year for an important study on the lower Snake River.”

Bigger, more rugged tags with larger batteries have also been developed to enable research on large and long-lived species such as sturgeon. PNNL says it is working on developing a self-powered tag that would enable long-term monitoring.

Its tracking and sensing technologies have been validated with more than 100,000 fish in the U.S., Australia, Brazil, Germany, and East Asian countries since 2007, says the laboratory. The technologies are also applicable to a wide range of species, research, locations, and commercial applications, and are available for testing with small mammals and amphibians.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Advanced Telemetry Systems

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