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By Pete Danko
The U.S. Department of Energy launched the Wave Energy Prize in search of breakthroughs for an industry struggling to reach commercial viability, and the department believes the winning team from Portland has hit on a big one.
“They did something nobody has really been able to accomplish before,” said Alison LaBonte, marine and hydrokinetic technology manager for the DOE, in the wake of last week’s announcement that AquaHarmonics had won the competition’s $1.5 million grand prize.
The big innovation by the team of Alex Hagmuller and Max Ginsburg was in devising a control system for their energy-absorbing buoy that keeps it in tune with the unpredictable rising and falling of the sea.
“People have theorized that doing so could result in a massive improvement in wave energy capture,” LaBonte said.
AquaHarmonics proved that out, shooting way past the competition’s goal of doubling today’s standard of energy capture at a set dollar cost.
Hagmuller called their approach “pay to play.”
Their buoy generates power when it rises on a wave and pulls out from a tether, spinning a generator inside the buoy. Keeping the line at just the right tension allows the device to perform most efficiently — and that extends to reeling the device back in at the moment and to the degree that is optimal.
Doing this eats up some of the energy the device has generated; that’s the pay. But AquaHarmonics found that if they dial the tension in just right, and time the reel-back precisely, it would yield net energy gains.
“We always have instantaneous control on that line,” Hagmuller explained. “It’s always under tension. That’s key in the control system.”
Remarkably, this isn’t quite the method they went into the competition aiming to employ. Instead of maintaining constant control of the line tension, they had planned on using a “latching/declutching” system that grabs the device at its lowest point in the wave cycle, then lets go at a precisely determined time.
Insights from an engineer friend suggested a possible better way, and they set out to try to make it work. It was harrowing at times.
“There was a period where we were certain that nothing was going to work,” he said.
It was in testing at Oregon State University in June — financed by making the Wave Energy Prize finals — that the new control system came together, setting the team up for a surprise victory in the finals.
LaBonte said the fact that AquaHarmonics was pretty much unknown in the wave energy world before the competition showed the Wave Energy Prize’s value. There are people out there who for a range of reasons aren’t in a position to get the funding they need to pursue potentially significant innovations; the Wave Energy Prize, she said, opened a door for those people.
“When we put this out to the public, we were hoping to draw out of the woodwork ideas that were stewing,” she said. “By giving (AquaHarmonics) timelines and a clear, focused metric, then getting them in a test tank, they were able to do in 18 months what otherwise would have taken several years.”
Now she thinks AquaHarmonics is set up to grow from the competition experience and make a real difference in wave energy’s prospects.
“They are being elevated and recognized by the broader sector now as having a winning technological concept with real potential,” she said. “They’re going to be able to quickly accelerate into connections they need in order to being successful.”
In a sign of just that, Hagmuller said a large company with an energy innovation arm contacted them. He didn’t want to name the company because the contact was quite preliminary, and he didn’t know what, if anything, would come of it.
For now, he said, AquaHarmonics was planning to get an accountant to help manage their funds — a “problem” they never had to worry about before, and chill a bit through the holidays before plotting a course for further work on their technology in the new year.