Researchers build prototype in attempt to harness energy from ocean waves

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A new project from UC Berkeley researchers may soon allow the power of ocean waves to join solar and wind power as a commercialized source of energy.

Led by Marcus Lehmann, a visiting graduate student in the mechanical engineering department, and supervised by Reza Alam, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and principal investigator of the research, the project focuses on building a prototype of a seafloor carpet that can generate electricity by mimicking the properties of a muddy seafloor.

Muddy seafloors generate heat when waves scrape against their surfaces, but most of that heat is released into the ocean. The prototype, which would be placed on seabeds in dead zones — areas void of life — aims to absorb that lost heat and generate electricity.

The energy generated by 10 meters of the seafloor carpet would be roughly equivalent to the energy conducted by a stadium-sized soccer field completely covered by solar panels.

“The idea that came to mind was that if we made an artificial surface that interacts with oceanic waves the same way mud responses, it must take out the same amount of energy,” Alam said.

The ultimate objective is to commercialize wave energy, which the researchers hope to see popularized in 10 years or sooner.

“In the winter when most energy is needed, ocean waves are predictable and can help with energy and electricity production,” Lehmann said, adding that he hopes to see wave energy complement wind and solar energy.

As more and more people move to live near coastlines, the researchers expect wave power to be a top contender as the next big renewable resource, especially because waves have very high-density energy.

Using waves to conduct energy would be most beneficial for people living near remote coastlines and in island systems because they often have no connections to electrical grids, Lehmann said.

Currently, the researchers are working to perfect the prototype, which they plan to test off the coast of Oregon. In order to fund the completion of the model, Lehmann is running a crowd funding campaign through which he hopes to raise almost $10,000.

The cost of building devices to harness wave power is high, Alam said, because the ocean is “a complicated environment and difficult to work with.” With other forms of renewable energy, projects can be designed on a smaller scale, but not with wave energy. The device would also have to be sturdy enough to combat the ocean’s corrosive and harsh environment.

“There’s an increasing need for clean and socially acceptable forms of generating power,” Alam said. “We’re working hard with scientists and engineers to make this happen. It’s a only a matter of time.”

Lydia Tuan covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @tuanlydia.