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From ocean waves to clean energy

The world’s oceans exercise a timeless pull on the human imagination. The poet William Wordsworth called the ocean “a mighty harmonist.” The explorer Jacques Cousteau said the ocean, “once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.” Others have expressed awe at the ocean’s immensity, and the rich diversity of its plant and animal life.

Five faculty members at Lehigh value the ocean for one of its physical marvels: its constancy. These researchers — four engineers and an economist — believe the unending cadence of the ocean’s waves could provide a uniquely steady source of clean and renewable energy.

“Wave energy is a form of renewable energy that is hugely available and untapped,” says Shalinee Kishore, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. “It is much cleaner than energy generated from fossil fuel sources, and it is much more reliable and consistent than either wind or solar energy.”

A study by the Electrical Power Research Institute, says Kishore, estimates that the United States could meet more than a quarter of its energy needs by deploying wave energy converters (WECs), or buoys, in “wave farms” along coastlines. The buoys would convert the mechanical energy of rolling ocean waves into electrical energy that could be fed into the nation’s power grid.

Kishore is principal investigator for a grant of nearly $1 million that Lehigh’s PORT (Power from Ocean, Rivers and Tides) Lab recently received from the National Science Foundation (NSF) through its CyberSEES (Cyber-Innovation for Sustainability Science and Engineering) program.

The PORT group received two other grants last year: a $400,000 award from NSF’s GOALI (Grant Opportunities for Academic Liaison with Industry) program, for which Larry Snyder, associate professor of industrial and systems engineering, is principal investigator, and a $100,000 Accelerator Grant from Lehigh. The industrial partner in the GOALI project, Ocean Power Technologies of New Jersey, is conducting pilot experiments with its wave energy converter design in Europe and North America.

The chief advantage of wave energy over wind and solar and other renewable energy sources, say the PORT researchers, is its reliability.

“Studies show that it is possible to predict the statistical parameters of waves at 48-hour intervals into the future,” says Kishore. “This means that grid operators can factor the available energy from waves into their daily supply-and-demand planning. It also means that wave energy harvesters may be able to participate as energy suppliers in day-ahead electricity markets because they can guarantee the generation of a portion of the power that the grid will need.”

Read the full story in the Winter 2015 issue of the Lehigh University Bulletin.

-Kurt Pfitzer is a writer with Lehigh University Media Relations.

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