The US Department of Energy has awarded Lockheed Martin a contract to construct a thermal piping system to capture the ocean’s absorbed solar heat.

The energy produced could be used to generate electricity or to fuel desalination, and according to the company, the process would be harmless to the ocean’s environment.

Lockheed Martin plans to create piping wide and long enough to stretch down thousands of feet under the ocean to harness the energy available from the temperature difference between the surface and the deep ocean. The temperature variant is relatively small, so large volumes of water are needed to produce a commercially-viable amount of power.

In 1974, Lockheed and Bechtel created a small-scale prototype, which is still functional. Denise Saiki, the vice president and general manager of Lockheed’s Undersea Systems business unit said that “The next step is to demonstrate it on a commercial scale and this DOE contract will help accelerate our progress towards that goal.