Huxley students' prototype converts wave energy into electricity

Western Today staff

A team of three students in Western Washington University’s Huxley College of the Environment competed in the University of Washington Environmental Innovation Challenge at the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall on March 29, where they demonstrated their self-designed prototype of a renewable energy technology, called Nexus Buoy. The device converts wave energy into electricity and could be a promising money-saving alternative to burning fossil fuels as an energy source in coastal communities.

Seniors Aaron Ellig of Kennewick, Andrew Wells of Mukilteo and junior Carolyn Wise of Northfield, Minn., who collectively call themselves “Amped Aquatics,” went up against 31 other teams in the UW competition that challenges students to design and develop a solution to an environmental problem and produce a prototype and business pitch that demonstrates the market opportunity for a chance to win $10,000.

The team excelled through two rounds of the competition. Although the students did not win the prize in the final round, the prototype, Nexus Buoy, generated interest from potential investors and industry representatives who wished to see the prototype developed further.

The project grew out of the concern that while a large portion of the world’s population is dependent on electricity, most of this energy is generated through the combustion of fossil fuels.

“If we continue to access fossil fuel resources, the extraction of these resources will become more costly,” Wells said. “The current energy infrastructure is shortsighted and will not provide future generations with access to affordable energy – or clean energy, for that matter.”

With approximately 3 billion people — about half of the world's population — living within 100 kilometers of a coastline (by 2025, that figure is likely to double), coastal and isolated island communities became the obvious target for their product. In some communities, energy prices are as much as five times greater than the U.S. national average, which is roughly 11 cents per kilowatt hour.

To cut their dependence on fossil fuels, many of these communities are seeking and implementing initiatives to access the abundant sources of energy that surround them (such as the ocean, wind and the sun).

Once Ellig received a $1,000 grant from UW, he, Wells and Wise formed “Amped Aquatics” and set out to build the prototype.

The team designed and developed a wave energy generator (known as a point absorber) that converts the oscillating motion of ocean waves into clean, usable, AC electricity. This electricity can be directly transferred to a preexisting power grid via insulated submarine cables that connect to a junction box on the shore.

The design focused on the simplicity of motion and only had one moving component, which allowed the Nexus Buoy to maximize efficiency while minimizing energy losses and downtime associated with complex mechanical transmission. The product has an output of 150 kW, or approximately enough to power about 20 to 30 homes. It has a projected installed cost of $300,000 (about $2,000 per kW) and a return on investment of 5 to 10 years, depending on the environmental conditions under which it operates.

Ellig got the idea to build the wave prototype when he took a class called ESCI 480: Applications in Energy Production. “I did a report on micro hydro (a type of hydroelectric power that typically produces as much as 100 kW of electricity using the natural flow of water) and did a little bit of research on similar technologies and the idea went from there,” he said.

The use of renewable energy technologies allows island and coastal communities to access more locally derived resources, allowing them to be less dependent on foreign energy, Ellig said. “The combination of multiple renewable energy resources can provide access to a clean reliable energy,” he said.

And while consumers would see decreased costs of electricity, the team projected that utility companies, too, can expect better profit margins on the energy they sell, due to less overhead.

“This increase in monetary savings from access to this energy will allow residents to reinvest in their local economies, fostering economic growth and will also provide them with a greater ability to access their basic necessities: clean water, food, shelter, and health care,” Wells said.

For more information contact Rebecca Bunn at (360) 650-4597.

WWU's Huxley College of the Environment is one of the oldest environmental colleges in the nation and a recognized national leader in producing the next generation of environmental stewards. The College's academic programs reflect a broad view of the physical, biological, social and cultural world. This innovative and interdisciplinary approach makes Huxley unique. The College has earned international recognition for the quality of its programs. The Resilience Institute mission is to create and disseminate practical knowledge and tools that promote resilient human and ecological communities in the context of natural hazard risk.

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Friday, April 20, 2012 - 8:36am