The makers of a prototype wave energy converter that looks like a conical floating Frisbee have won $1.5 million in funding from the US Department of Energy, enabling them to keep working toward a commercial scale device. The grant comes from the agency’s Wave Energy Prize, a competition designed to fast track solutions for squeezing the most renewable energy juice out of coastal waters at the lowest cost.
What’s Behind The Wave Energy Prizewinner
The current crop of buoy-type wave energy devices can be roughly divided in two types. In one type, the “works” are unenclosed. The benefits are that you shed the weight and expense of an outer hull, but anti-corrosion measures have to be stepped up.
The other type hides all the goodies within a fully enclosed hull. One example of that type is already well on its way to commercialization. That’s the device from Australia’s Carnegie Wave Energy, which CleanTechnica has been following along with our sister site PlanetSave. Carnegie has already hooked up its technology with a naval base in Australia, and it recently announced plans to go international with an installation at the UK’s Cornwall Wave Hub.
Unfortunately for us, the Wave Energy Prizewinner — Portland, Oregon’s Aquaharmonics — has followed the Carnegie approach. They don’t have a schematic readily available (if you can find one, drop a note in the comment thread), so there’s not much we can show you on that score.
However, if you take a look at the photos on the Aquaharmonics website (here’s that link again), you can pick up a few clues about what’s going on inside that sleek hull.
What’s Really Behind The Wave Energy Prizewinner
If the photos don’t seem to reveal any new, cutting edge technology, that’s on purpose. Aquaharmonics’s winning strategy is based on deploying known technology in an optimal way.
The hull, for example, is made of carbon fiber reinforced plastic. CFRP provides the required level of durability while providing for a lightweight, relatively inexpensive enclosure:
That choice of material also gave the team an important edge in the time-sensitive Wave Energy Prize competition. This update provides some insight:
The other exciting thing about CFRP is making a back up device becomes pretty easy and quick once the molds are made. Our first layer of carbon has been laid up, and many of the custom fabricated components are complete and en-route to us. This means that the hull is now waiting on these parts for completion instead of the other way around!
As for the device’s innards, the team took a look at other technologies that have been optimized, such as wind turbines, cars, and airplanes. They came to this conclusion:
As humans we are very good at optimizing something once we know what to optimize, and with wave energy, we don’t know what that is yet. We all know the best ways to make power from wind energy for instance. It is a blade attached to a generator placed on a tower.
Wave energy simply hasn’t found the device to focus on for optimizing. Once we do, the development will certainly move very quickly to becoming highly competitive.
And, here’s how the team sums up its approach:
Our device Power Take Off is unique in that it uses relatively simple and well known power technologies to convert wave motion to electrical power in very few steps, with no limit in operational stroke, meaning it can make full use of any given wave height with no “end stop” conditions.
Game-Changing Energy For The USA
The US has some catching up to do when it comes to the global ocean energy scene, but the payoff could be significant. Here’s how the Energy Department sums it up:
With more than 50 percent of the U.S. population living within 50 miles of coastlines, there is vast potential to provide clean, renewable electricity to communities and cities across the United States using wave energy.
There is certainly plenty of interest in the engineering community. The agency’s 18-month design/build competition attracted 92 entries.
As for the future of federal funding for wave energy development in the US, the incoming Trump Administration appears to be playing a giant guessing game as the Oval Office transitions to a new occupant.
On the other hand, the US Navy provided its test facilities to support the Wave Energy Prize, so it’s possible that some further assistance from the Department of Defense will enable Aquaharmonics and the two runners-up (CalWave Power Technologies and Waveswing America) to continue working along the path to commercialization.
Image (screenshot, enhanced): via Aquaharmonics.
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