Wave energy a tantalizing prospect

RIDING THE WAVE: Travis Tucker, an engineer at Electro Standards Laboratories, performs a preliminary in-water buoy testing for a project on wave-energy generation being done in collaboration with the University of Rhode Island. The test was done at the URI Bay Campus in Narragansett. / COURTESY ELECTRO STANDARDS LABORATORIES
RIDING THE WAVE: Travis Tucker, an engineer at Electro Standards Laboratories, performs a preliminary in-water buoy testing for a project on wave-energy generation being done in collaboration with the University of Rhode Island. The test was done at the URI Bay Campus in Narragansett. / COURTESY ELECTRO STANDARDS LABORATORIES

It seems natural in the Ocean State that engineering companies and university researchers would sooner or later zero in on the mission to harvest energy from waves in the sea.
Movement toward that tantalizing goal of producing wave energy is already in progress through collaboration between Electro Standards Laboratories in Cranston and the University of Rhode Island.
Looking to take advantage of the potential of waves off the southeastern Massachusetts coastline, research is also underway at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
Initial projects are small in terms of the amount of energy expected to be created from the movement of water, and that’s partly based on two major obstacles.
The first is money, or more specifically, lack of it.
“Our grant money is running out,” said Raymond Sepe Jr., vice president of research and development for Electro Standards Laboratories, which got some federal funding, in partnership with URI, through the Small Business Innovation Research program.
Electro Standards Laboratories is collaborating with URI professor Stephan Grilli, who told Providence Business News in an email from France, where he is on sabbatical, “We have a proven design and we need funding to move to the next stage.”
The second major challenge is where the devices to be produced would be located.
“When you put equipment like this where there are lots of waves, it’s good because you can capture wave energy, but it also tears up the equipment,” said Daniel MacDonald, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s department of estuarine and ocean science. “It’s difficult to build equipment that can hold up in the ocean.”
Research at UMass Dartmouth began three years ago with a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, which was awarded the project through the university’s Marine Renewable Energy Center.
The regional teams working to capture and unleash the power of wave energy are focused on small projects that they view as foundations for possible larger energy-producing capabilities for the industry in the future.
Engineers at Electro Standards Laboratories have been working with energy and power for some time, but teaming up with URI to integrate their generators with a buoy to harvest energy from the ocean is a public/private partnership that’s promising in terms of innovation and long-term economic growth, said Sepe, an electrical engineer. “The underlying technology is to generate power in a smart way. The uses now are for sensors to provide monitoring information and communications,” said Sepe. “The uses could be for things like sensors for navigational aids or fish migrations. We’re not expecting to build power plants at this point.”
In theory, after much more extensive development in harnessing wave energy, these types of innovations could eventually lead to offshore needs at sites such as oil-rig platforms, said Sepe.
Electro Standards Laboratories calls this segment of research and development ocean wave-energy-harvesting systems. The research is targeted toward the need for sensor buoys and other remote ocean platforms, which are generally powered by batteries. ESL’s innovative wave-energy-harvesting systems are geared toward reducing, or possibly eliminating, the need for batteries, because batteries require maintenance or retrieval of the ocean-based devices.
ESL’s current wave-energy projects that integrate the buoys use small, electric generators driven by wave action that can harness about 1-10 watts of electrical power.
“The whole beauty of the approach is that we’re trying to keep it as simple as possible,” said Sepe.
“We’ve got different designs for buoys, but basically it moves up and down, kind of like a Coke can bouncing in the water,” he said.
“The entire generating system is sealed within the body of the buoy,” said Sepe. “Magnets are attached to the body of the buoy with a spring that allows them to move up and down through coils as the buoy bobs in the wave.
“This action generates electricity in the coils, which is then accumulated and stored for use,” he said. “The electricity is stored in super capacitors contained in the buoy,” said Sepe. “The buoy can be used to power sensors or communication devices.”
The prototypical buoy is about 12 feet tall. The generator is housed in the main spar, which is the cylinder. Satellite spars attached to the main spar give the buoy stability, he said. To move the project forward, ESL is seeking partnerships with organizations interested in furthering scientific study or in commercializing the technology.
The company envisions possible applications for the technology that include recharging stations for unmanned underwater vehicles, replacement or augmentation for solar power, sonar-listening stations, weather-monitoring buoys or tsunami-warning stations.
The increasing demand for renewable energy can spur development of the technology, said Grilli.
“As the cost of fossil fuel-based energy keeps increasing, and their carbon footprint becomes less and less acceptable to society, wave-energy systems will become increasingly attractive, first for island communities and places far from the energy plants, and then, eventually, just like offshore wind, for supplying a good part of the U.S. energy consumption,” said Grilli, whose interest in wave energy began when he was in graduate school in Belgium in the 1980s. At UMass Dartmouth, a research team, which includes students, has applied for a patent on a magnetic coupling system used in the system to harness wave energy, said MacDonald.
“We want to develop something that’s low cost and easy to maintain. We’re experimenting with different mechanical configurations sealed inside a tube,” said MacDonald.
“We’re working with a donut-like buoy with a tube in the middle. There’s no exposure of mechanical parts. It’s a series of magnets on the inside,” said MacDonald. “The magnets inside the tube are connected to the buoy with a magnetic coupling. The key piece of the patent we applied for is the magnetic coupling.”
The UMass Dartmouth team is developing a second prototype that will be tested off a dock, he said.
“We’re trying to develop a machine that will convert wave energy to electricity on a small scale. We’re not expecting to power homes, feed into the grid or replace fossil fuel power plants,” said MacDonald. “It’s probably a decade or two before that’s really viable.” •

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