Buoyed By Power

With the hunt for powerful energy generation innovations in full swing, there’s been some investment moving into the ocean. Let’s face it, waves and currents aren’t likely to stop anytime soon.

SRI researchers have cleverly applied a biological muscle technology to the guts of a wave generating buoy. The researchers recently demonstrated the buoy in Santa Cruz harbor, an hour drive south of San Francisco.

The bobbing buoy works a bellows like span of special electrical conductive material to generate electricity. Its not something that SRI pioneer Douglas Engelbart predicted at his Jules Verne like demonstration in 1968, but like his innovation inspired to help our thinking and collaboration it springs from our how our muscles work.

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A Wave Generating Buoy
(Photo: SRI)

This new device, which was jointly developed by the Japanese company Hyper Drive and uses SRI’s rubbery material, called electroactive polymer artificial muscle – what a mouthful for the name of a rubbery material.

What’s impressive about this material is it functions like artificial muscle and is able to generate electricity when it is stretched and then allowed to return to its original shape. In 2004, the technology was licensed to Artificial Muscle, an SRI spin off company. In a generation capacity, the researchers say that by comparison to other similar wave generation systems the polymer requires fewer moving parts and is both durable and costs less to produce.

Recently, Wavebob, the Ireland based wave energy specialist, says it is about to close an investment round that would give it 5 million euros ($7 million) of capital to fund the development of a larger, 1.5MW device. Wavebob has been testing a 30kW wave power converter since March 2006 off the coast of Ireland, and is now looking to develop and build the larger device. The company already has collaborations in place with energy majors Vattenfall of Sweden and Chevron of the US.

The SRI demonstration revealed that many of these buoys could be used to harvest wave energy that can help power an industrial park or feed into an on-shore electrical grid. The device only generates small amounts of electricity but researchers said future designs are expected to produce many kilowatts of electricity per buoy, thus making it more cost effective.

Nevertheless, that’s a big step to reducing costs associated with ships having to visit the buoys to replace the batteries every As for these buoys being able to generate higher levels of electricity, that will take several more years and patience. Just remember how long it took to achieve some of SRI’s pioneering genius that Douglas Englebart ambitiously demonstrated more than 40 years ago. Lee Bruno

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