Surf's up!

May 09, 2001

Catching a wave is one thing. Actually harnessing one and making it somehow useful is quite another. But, that's exactly what engineers at Ocean Power Technologies (OPT) in New Jersey are doing, with Office of Naval Research's Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) funding.

The idea of using the tremendous forces of wave power is not new. Water wheels turned by ocean waves were in place along the coast of England back when Richard the Lionhearted was packing up for the Crusades (12th century). But it never worked well, and all attempts in recent history to harness the power of the sea have involved turbines, large monolithic structures and complex mechanical parts which tend to corrode over time. OPT had a better idea. Two of them as a matter of fact.

One uses piezoelectric polymers (plastics that generate electricity when bent or strained by external forces - fluctuating water currents, for instance) by hanging bits of the stuff - like artificial eels - in the ocean. When placed in a current of water, the strip flexes and flaps like a pennant, thereby producing enough current to trickle charge a battery or power a sensor - about a watt per square meter as a matter of fact.

OPT's other ocean wave power initiative involves a simple ocean buoy with an internal piston-type device, which rides up and down in the motion of the ocean waves. Connected to a cable running to shore, each buoy can generate about 20 kilowatts of power, enough to turn on the lights in up to 20 houses. OPT is in the process of developing buoys of 100 kilowatt capacity. Buoys are planned soon for Hawaii and will be operating in Australia by late summer 2001, with more proposed for off the West Coast of the U.S. in the future.

By grouping many buoys, OPT plans to make 1 - 100 kilowatt systems for small coastal communities and offshore oil rigs. Multimegawatt systems are on the horizon. And just in the nick of time...such clean, renewable power sources could be part of the solution California is now seeking.

Office of Naval Research

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