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Oregon Engineers Innovate Their Way to Victory in Wave Energy Prize Contest

By Dustin Q. Diaz, Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division Public Affairs | Nov. 22, 2016

WEST BETHESDA, Md. —

One team emerged victorious from an initial field of 92 competing in renewable energy development to win $1.5 million during the Wave Energy Prize Innovation Showcase Nov. 16 at Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division.

With nine teams in the finals, Alex Hagmuller and Max Levites-Ginsburg of team AquaHarmonics, both civilian engineers and graduates of Oregon State University, took the prize with the most effective and cost-efficient wave energy converter (WEC) design, which they tested and demonstrated at Carderock Division headquarters in West Bethesda, Maryland. Carderock and the Office of Naval Research (ONR) supported the contest, which was sponsored by the Department of Energy (DOE).

"Our goal was to build a device that would extract energy from ocean waves," Levites-Ginsburg said. "Early on, we were working out of a garage and we didn't have a lot of resources or great facilities. We approached it trying to make the best of what we had, but we didn't really have a lot. It was really surprising what we were able to achieve."

AquaHarmonics won the contest with their WEC concept and model of a point absorber with latching/de-clutching control. Levites-Ginsburg said they built a buoy with a generator inside, anchored to the sea floor. Any relative motion from the point on the sea floor to the elevation of the device caused the generator to spin and produce electricity.

This victory is the culmination of years of work both on their part, but also the many members of government and private industry involved in the Wave Energy Prize contest. Jim Ahlgrimm, director of DOE's Water Power Technologies Office, spoke at the beginning of the awards ceremony about DOE's vision for the contest and the critical support of Carderock and other partners in this contest, which ran 20 months from beginning to end. He said the goal of the Wave Energy Prize is to encourage the development of more efficient WEC devices that double the energy captured from ocean waves, which in turn will reduce the cost of wave energy, making it more competitive with traditional energy solutions. The winning team actually quintupled the captured energy.

"We put this competition together for you to help in the DOE's quest to drive renewable energy innovation in the U.S.," Ahlgrimm said. "We owe much of the success of this competition to the U.S. Navy, specifically Carderock, ONR, and the assistant secretary of the Navy's office [energy, installations and environment]. The Navy's commitment of resources and facilities included the best wave-making staff and facilities in the world."

The support of the Carderock staff and facilities was critical to enabling this public prize competition's goal of improving methods of gathering energy from the ocean's waves, according to Dave Newborn, an ocean engineer with Carderock's Maritime Systems Hydromechanics Branch. Newborn has been heavily involved in this contest since its planning began over two years ago.

"We were part of writing the rules with the prize administration team; I'm one of five judges for the prize," Newborn said. "We have served in the role of technical experts for marine hydrokinetic renewable energy technologies as a program identified partner, along with Sandia National Lab in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colorado, and we've served as the lead on the hydrodynamic testing in the final technology gate for the prize."

Registration for the Wave Energy Prize opened April 2015 to U.S.-based teams of corporations, small businesses, professional engineers, students and entrepreneurs and closed two months later. The competition continued through design submission and testing, with qualifying teams progressing to testing on 1/50-scale models of their designs. The nine teams who qualified then proceeded to test 1/20-scale models in Carderock's Maneuvering and Seakeeping Basin (MASK) under 10 different wave conditions in a series of tests that could only be conducted in the MASK's 2.5-acre pool, the world's most technologically advanced indoor ocean, according to Capt. Mark Vandroff, Carderock Division's commanding officer.

After the presentation of the prizes, participants and guests moved to the MASK to watch a demonstration of the winning device.

"We have 216 computer-controlled hydraulic paddles that can move in concert to create, at a 1-20 scale, the wave conditions of any ocean anywhere in the world," Vandroff said before the waves started rolling for the demonstration. "You had nine different finalists, each using a variety of different extraction technologies, who needed something they could control that would be variable to what each of the teams needed, but also precise, repeatable, and available on demand. That takes a world-class hydrodynamics facility, so that's why DOE chose to come here."

In August, the finalists began transferring their 1/20-scale models to Carderock, unpacking and reassembling them for testing in the MASK with the assistance of Carderock employees. Data analysts from Sandia National Lab and National Renewable Energy Lab verified the finished data and ensured its legitimacy. This process involved a lot more work than standard testing in the MASK since each team required different conditions for testing, according to Miguel Quintero, an ocean engineer with Carderock's Full-Scale Trials Branch.

"We had calls almost every day for about six months before the tests, and once they began, we had four or five teams working every day to make this happen," Quintero said. "They were putting out weights and mooring lines, taking measurements, setting up devices and deploying them using cranes and homemade lifting devices. We had to position the anchors accurately to ensure each team had the correct mooring setup and instrument everything with force gauges, accelerometers, and motion tracking. It was a ton of work."

Quintero said he eagerly joined this project at the beginning without knowing many details about it and is glad he did, especially since wave energy is still a developing technology compared with other renewable energy sources like solar and wind.

"It was a sense of completion, of satisfaction, that all the hard work we put in was actually successful and we helped a team achieve what they needed," Quintero said. "This is one of the projects as an ocean engineer you want to see succeed. There's a lot of research and known metrics on solar and wind, but with wave energy, there aren't that many to go by. It's great to have this -- a known data set that's been well collected and well reviewed by several experts -- to help jump the technology to where it needs to be."

Retired Navy Vice Adm. Dennis McGinn, assistant secretary of the Navy (energy, installations & environment), spoke at the event about this DOE-DON partnership and the logical use of wave energy for the Navy and Marine Corps in the littoral environments it operates in. He also praised Hagmuller and Levites-Ginsburg for doing well and ultimately winning the prize, despite lacking resources to do so at first.

"It says so much about America's innovation, our inventors, that this small team literally operating out of a garage in Portland, Oregon, have won this $1.5 million prize," McGinn said. "For them, this is just the beginning. It's a wonderful milestone, and they will be moving forward to continue to refine and scale up this technology."

Keynote speaker David Masten, founder of Masten Space Systems, and Dr. Franklin (Lynn) Orr, under secretary for science and energy at DOE, both discussed the value of prizes in driving technological innovation. Masten spoke about his own experiences in winning NASA's Lunar Landing Challenge in 2009. Orr talked about how John Harrison designed a marine clock in 1730 for the British government's Longitude prize, a contest to spur innovation in developing a precise way to determine a ship's longitude at sea.

"That was of some value to navies, as well as anyone that needs to get around the ocean," Orr said lightheartedly. "So here we are again."

Levites-Ginsburg said he was surprised, awed, and grateful to have beaten out those other 91 teams, which he never expected to do. He and Hagmuller said they simply decided to give their best effort at each milestone, from receiving seed funding for their 1/20-scale model to getting to test it at Carderock's advanced facilities. The Wave Energy Prize gave them guidance, structure, and motivation, he said.

"If we start at the very beginning, you could say we've been working on this for five years, but our first attempts at this looked very different," Levites-Ginsburg said. "We definitely learned a lot as we went, and the Wave Energy Prize laid out some goals for us to achieve that really pushed us in directions that maybe we wouldn't have pursued on our own, but ultimately led us down a path to enable us to make the right discoveries we had to do and make the right design choices."

Levites-Ginsburg said AquaHarmonics is very eager to follow up on this success and continue to do work in the vein of their team quote: "Clean. Simple. Energy."

"It would absolutely be my goal to continue working on this in some regard," Levites-Ginsburg said. "Our performance in the Wave Energy Prize will open a lot of doors and generate a lot of interest. If there are funding opportunities or testing opportunities, we would both be very excited to do that and keep pursuing our passion, which is what this whole thing has been about for us."

CalWave Power Technologies from Berkeley, California, led by Marcus Lehmann, won the second-place prize of $500,000 for their submerged pressure differential device. The third-place prize of $250,000 went to Waveswing America of Sacramento, California, led by Mirko Previsic, for their sub-sea pressure-differential point-absorber.

For more information on the Wave Energy Prize, visit http://www.waveenergyprize.org/.