The six-storey building, designed by London-based architects Nicholas Burwel, will house two large water tanks as well as teaching space for Plymouth University’s School of Marine Science and Engineering.
Researchers said it would allow them to create waves, wind and sediment inside the building’s tanks.
The proposed 4,500 sq m centre forms most of the £25m Plymouth Science and Innovation Programme, a city-wide strategy aimed at creating jobs, businesses and economic success from science and innovation activities.
Plymouth University is the largest contributor to the project, investing £11.8m in the initiative.
Other funders include the South West Regional Development Agency, the Department of Business Innovation and Skills, the Department of Energy and Climate Change and Plymouth City Council.