Monday, October 13, 2014

The Wave of the Future: The Next Wave: The Quest to Harness the Power of the Oceans by Elizabeth Rusch

Mike Morrow and Mike Delos-Reyes grew up together near Salem, Oregon.

Mike Morrow was a whiz at reverse engineering, even though he didn't know what his favorite activity was called. With a screwdriver, he could open up up anything electric.

His friend Mike Delos-Reyes was the perfect complement, though--he had a real knack for building things. Together the Mikes helped start McNary High School's Science Club.

The Mikes went to college together, both majoring in mechanical engineering. And that's where their opposite skills came in handy.

To graduate, students were required to complete a senior project. Mike and Mike were given a list of possible projects sponsored by companies like Hewlett-Packard. But the Mikes wanted to come up with something on their own.

"That's not really the way we do this," the administration told them. If they wanted to try, they'd have to design a project, define the scope, recruit an advisor, and track down their own supplies. The two Mikes wanted to do something in the hot field of renewable energy. Mike had a vague idea: he remembered visiting a wave park and how his ears popped when he stayed underwater as the breakers rolled over him. If they could somehow use the water pressure of rolling waves to push a fluid past a turbine, they might be able to generate endless electricity from the sea bottom.

The Mikes started scrounging materials around the campus. A bit of down-and-dirty dumpster diving turned up big plastic bladders from a milk dispenser in the cafeteria that could work to hold the air to be compressed, and plastic spoons formed the paddles in the turbine. Mike Delos-Reyes even refurbished a cast-off wave chamber he found behind the engineering building. Stabilizing the air bags inside milk crates and connecting the two improvised airbags to the turbine with PVC pipe, the Mikes gave their prototype a spin. It worked! The Mikes made the grade, won an international science prize, and graduated. Then their flimsy model was packed away as they went off to find jobs.

But the Mikes had an idea whose time was coming. Scientists all over the world were beginning to give serious thought to renewable energy. Hydroelectric dams had been around for decades; windmills were old technology that could be refined to produce electricity, and solar power was feasible, but still expensive; so sea power seemed to be the next frontier.

In the efforts to ride that wave, engineers tinkered with several methods: one was a type of buoy which could capture the up-and-down of wave motion to generate electricity; another model used a sort of floating ocean dam to produce flow to rotate a turbine. Others used floating or sea bottom platforms with turbines powered by wave flow. All of these prototypes worked, but some produced little power, some had problems weathering storms, and most had to be anchored to the seafloor by cables that can break, snarl, interfere with boat traffic, or injure passing sea creatures. All had to be linked to the continental grid by long electric cables connecting the devices to onshore transformers. The Mikes' seafloor generators, located just offshore, began to look better and better.

Elizabeth Rusch's forthcoming The Next Wave: The Quest to Harness the Power of the Oceans (Scientists in the Field Series) (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) is a highly readable report on the state of the art of ocean motion generation. Using young would-be inventors to capture the readers' attention, Rusch's narration reveals the ebb and flow of inventing, failures, partial successes, and working models, many of which are currently in operation in the proving grounds of coastal areas all over the world. Rusch's text provides fact boxes, diagrams, and many photos, with appended glossary, chapter notes, and index, to explain the principles of generating electricity from the restless motion of the seas, all of which are variations on the familiar principles of turbines turned by air or water pressure, but all of which have variations which make them adaptable to the differing tidal conditions. Fortunately, as Rusch's wave intensity world map shows, ocean motion is greatest in the coastal areas where our populations are most dense, a lucky coincidence for mankind.

Wave power is attractive as an energy source because it is always there. Winds can still. Drought can reduce water flow; clouds can obscure the sun, but the oceans are always there, always in motion. Using that motion most efficiently is a challenge, but it is mainly an engineering problem, one that is well within human power to solve.

The mighty Mikes might just have caught the wave of the future.

Ultimately, the Mikes imagine multiple arrays of their Delos-Reyes-Morrow-Pressure device at various locations up and down the coast, making potentially dozens of megawatts of electricity.

Award-winning author Elizabeth Rusch's The Next Wave: The Quest to Harness the Power of the Oceans is another absorbing entry into Houghton Mifflin's stellar Scientists in the Field series which takes readers right down to the nitty-gritty of doing science, as we say, on the ground, or in this case, into the waters of the world.

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