Inventing the Future: Ocean Energy
Updated: Nov 17, 2021
Energy is all around us. The phones we use, the stove in our kitchen, and even the engines in our car require different kinds of energy to run. While society as a whole has advanced leaps and bounds over the years, so has our energy consumption. No matter
what part of the world we come from, no matter what our political standpoint is, no matter our level of education, we can all agree that our planet is going towards a path of a global energy crisis. One of the largest challenges facing our generation is upgrading and creating new and reliable renewable energy sources that can satisfy our current energy consumption needs. While there are several different
clean energy forms like wind turbines, hydroelectric dams, and even nuclear power plants, these technologies have limitations that make them unsuitable as our primary source of energy.
With the advancement in science and technology, a new kind of energy known as “marine energy” has emerged and has shown immense potential. 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by water and marine energy utilizes the waves to create energy in the form of electricity. To contribute to the field and spread knowledge about it to the population, a group of motivated students started an Ocean Energy Club at Virginia Tech.
Upon talking to Duncan Lambert, a senior at Virginia Tech majoring in mechanical engineering who is currently a member of the club and a team lead for one of the ongoing projects, I discovered insightful information.
What does the Ocean Energy Club and its members do?
The members of the Ocean Energy Club take part in the annual Marine Energy Collegiate Competition (MECC) hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy. The competition aims to not only make a small-scale appliance that has functionality and can harvest energy but also has marketability for future large-scale production.
Ocean Energy Club is different from a traditional engineering club in that we focus equally on the engineering as well as the production and business side of our prototype. Marine energy is a relatively new and budding technology and to bring more people together to support our cause, we must promote new concepts to reach more numbers. We not only have members from engineering, but also business and marketing. Having a multidisciplinary team from all majors is one of the mission statements of our club because we aim to make marine energy a viable energy source for the future. We believe that to positively impact our future, we need a blend of effective engineering and a sustainable business model.
What made you interested in joined the club? What are some of the benefits of joining?
Apart from learning about the technology, what made me interested in joining the club was the opportunity to share information about marine energy with the students of Virginia Tech. We are always looking for young and bright minds to come and work together. We are currently collaborating with UCLA for the annual MECC competition. This allowed me to work with students and faculties from different universi-
ties. Apart from the technical knowledge, I was able to learn how to operate as a multi-campus team which was an enriching experience for me. Our faculty advisors, Dr. Lei Zuo from Virginia Tech and Dr. M. Khalid Jawed from UCLA, have extensive experience
in the field. Dr. Zuo is the director of the Center of Energy Harvesting Materials and Systems (CEHMS), an NSF-funded industry consortium with sites in Virginia Tech, Columbia University, and Penn State University. Learning from one of the best in the field and interacting with them gave me immeasurable work experience in terms of ethics and knowledge. Additionally, getting to work alongside students from different states in the U.S. and countries like China and India was a new experience for me.
How does the technology work?
A device that harvests wave power is widely known as a wave energy converter (WEC). There are dozens of different types of WECs that have been developed and used for various applications. Furthermore, the primary component of a WEC is the power take-off mechanism or PTO. The PTO is a system that converts one form of electricity to another.
The primary goal of research in the field of ocean energy is either optimization of existing WEC designs, the invention of new WEC designs, or application of existing WEC technology to new markets. For this project, we largely fall under the first and third categories of trying to optimize an existing WEC concept while also applying it to an optimal market.
Specifically, the type of WEC that our team is researching is a variation of the common point absorber WEC. A point absorber WEC is one that simply converts the bidirectional heave motion of a buoy/structure relative to a base structure into usable electricity. Our research involves removing the base structure and instead relying on the relative motion of an internal mass to generate electricity. This can be referred to as an internal
two-body, point absorber WEC. The figure below highlights the motion conversion process of the PTO mechanism.
The process starts with the bidirectional heave motion of the outer buoy structure. This motion then causes the relative motion of the internal mass suspended on springs. As this internal mass oscillates, it drives a belt, resulting in bidirectional belt motion. Finally, this belt drives a pulley which creates bidirectional rotational motion of a shaft. This shaft is then used to power a generator. The key factors that need to be considered with this design include the mass of the internal body, the mass of the buoy, and the K value of the springs. Ideally, the optimization of all these terms will result in a highly efficient WEC.