A Chinese firm plans to create the world's biggest ocean thermal electric plant, and has enlisted the engineering expertise of one of America's biggest defence contractors to fulfill this ambition.

The Beijing-based Reignwood Group has inked a contract with Lockheed Martin for the design of the world’s largest power plant, which will generate electricity via a process known as ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC).

Reignwood, a Chinese firm specializing in consumer and lifestyle products, hopes to use the proposed 10 megawatt plant to supply electricity to a seaside resort slated for construction somewhere along the coast of southern China.

Dan Heller, vice president of new ventures for Lockheed’s Mission Systems and Training Unit, says that while other groups are currently working on OTEC plants, the facility under development by Reignwood will “be magnitudes larger than [anything] anybody else, including ourselves, have ever attempted.”

The plant will generate enough electricity to power around 10,000 small residential units.

While the proposed facility is set to be the biggest in the world, it pales in comparison to Lockheed’s plans for scaling up the technology. Heller says Lockheed hopes to build a 100 megawatt OTEC plant once the Reignwood project proves the technical and economic viability of oceanic thermal energy generation.

“I do believe that sometime during the course of this project, we will begin work on the 100 megawatt design,” Heller said.

Heller believes the heightened economic viability of large-scale OTEC plants will abet their adoption in places around the world endowed with the right oceanic resources.

“In my estimation, starting in about five years from today, we’re going to be in a position to start marketing the 100 megawatt and the 10 megawatt version globally,” he said.

The contract executed by Lockheed and Reignwood will cover the initial 10-month design phase of what is expected to be a three-and-a-half-year process.

The development will employ processes which have already been trialled in smaller facilities but have yet to be applied to projects on a commercial scale. Lockheed has remained mum, however, on the value of the contract or the expected cost for the development’s construction.

According to Heller, the reason both parties decided to execute a comparatively brief, 10-month design contract initially was due to inability to accurately determine the final cost for the project given the fledgling nature of the technology it employs.

The OTEC process leverages the disparities in water temperature found at different depths in tropical oceans to generate electricity via steam-driven turbines.

The closed system plant which will be adopted for the Reignwood project uses warmer surface waters to convert liquid ammonia, which has a low boiling point, into gas which can power the steam turbines.

Cold water from much deeper below the ocean’s surface is then used to convert the ammonia gas back into a  liquid so the process can re-commence.

While Lockheed Martin is best known as one of the US government’s biggest defence contractors, the company has extensive and long-standing involvement with the development of  OTEC technology.

The company assisted in the construction of the world’s first OTEC system to generate net power back in the 1970s, and in 2009 was awarded a contract for the development of an OTEC pilot plant in Hawaii which would have had a 10-megawatt capacity, equivalent to the Reignwood project.

The Hawaiian project was subsequently scuppered, however, when the US Navy determined that the system was not viable.