By Ali Trueworthy
I want to put things in the ocean that can generate electricity. In pursuit of that, I do research which works to answer the question, “How do we design things that go in the ocean and generate electricity?” This is different from, “What things can we design that go in the ocean and generate electricity?” If I can answer the how, the answer to the what will be much better.
Imagine you build houses in the arid Arizona climate. One day, someone asks you to build a house for a family in New England. Given that the structure and methods you use to build homes in the Southwest are unique to the geography and climate of the region, you realize that if you build the same kind of house in New England that you build for families in the Southwest, it probably won’t turn out well for your customer. You have been given a new set of design challenges. What might you do? Would you visit New England, note things about the weather and the houses that are already there? Or maybe, since you live in the 21st century, you would use what you know about construction combined with what you can learn on the internet about New England weather and New England home construction to make design choices.
Now, imagine you have been asked to build a house for a family to live in the ocean. That’s right, not on the ocean, but in the ocean; preferably where the waves are big, frequent and full of energy. Now, if you are thinking, “no problem, I know a guy who lives in a pineapple under the sea,” I point out that his property on Bikini Bottom is far from where the waves are big, frequent, and full of energy. The family you are working with wants to be where the action is! If step one is still to visit the location of the house, suddenly it’s not as easy as getting on a plane. Even if you were to get out to visit, there wouldn’t be other houses floating around for you to take note of. Once you go below the surface of the water, your senses can’t provide you with nearly as much knowledge. So, you have a lot of questions. The main one is, “How do I build a house for this family to live in the ocean?” You aren’t even thinking about what the house looks like yet, you are just thinking about step one: what should I do?
This is the question I try to answer for designers and developers of wave energy converters (WECs). I use what we know about the ocean and the ways people design complex systems, along with what we have learned from previous tests and models of WECs, to develop methods for how we should design them. If we want low-cost, clean energy from ocean waves, we must develop the design and assessment methodologies to help designers succeed in an environment in which there are very few models of success.