The story is a legend at OSU: in the 90s, two engineering undergrads built a working wave energy machine out of Dairy Queen plastic spoons and old Walkmans as their senior project. To test it, they need a wave tank. When they realize the cost of renting the university’s Hinsdale Wave Research Lab is $3,000 a day, the students hijack an abandoned broken wave tank in one of the engineering buildings, fix it up, and run their tests in it in the dead of night.
“When we were done, we re-broke it just the way we found it and put all the junk back on top of it, and didn’t confess until many years later,” said Mike Morrow, one of the students who discovered that night that their project worked as they’d hoped.
The device sat forgotten in a warehouse à la Raiders of the Lost Ark for almost two decades. Now it’s back–still working, still making power 20 years later–and earning more than half a million in technology development grants over the past year and a half for its creators Morrow and Mike Delos-Reyes. That’s enough money that Morrow finally rented OSU’s $3,000-a-day wave tank for a week to prove what it could do.
“It really did some spectacular work there,” said Morrow, who noted that it’s creating even more energy than anticipated.
Morrow and Delos-Reyes have joined with a third Mike–Mike Miller–in creating M3 Wave Energy Systems LLC, the Salem-based company that’s become serious about the future of wave energy. And their device, the Delos-Reyes Morrow Pressure Device (DMP) looks like one of the best approaches in the burgeoning field. Its promise is backed by hard cash including grant money from the Department of Energy and the Oregon Wave Energy Trust.
Today, Morrow has his own 30-foot wave tank in Salem, which he built as an alternative to OSU’s expensive rental tank. The tank is built out of parts from “an old robot-fighting business I used to do,” said Morrow, who used to be ranked second in the world on the Robot Wars: Extreme Warriors TV series. He jokes that it’s the largest private wave tank in the Northwest–it’s probably the only private wave tank in the Northwest.
The DMP has several advantages over other wave energy devices that use buoys. First, the DMP rests on the ocean floor, where it uses pressure changes in water and air to generate power. This eliminates cables, buoys, and the resulting problems with ocean storms, marine mammals, and shipping routes–not to mention the eyesore of a buoy system.
“We are completely different than anything else that is out there in the world right now,” Morrow said. “We sit stationary on the ocean floor. Instead of fighting with the surface of the ocean, we’re actually harvesting pressure. We’re turning the pressure of the ocean wave into electricity. You’re not in the way of whales migrating or ships fishing nearby or seagoing traffic.”
Morrow came up with the idea as a teenager at a water park inDenverwhich had a big wave pool. He noticed hand-holds near the wave generator and decided to hang on.
“I thought, I’m going to see if I can let this wave pass over my head, and when it did, my ears popped.”
The bizarre spike in pressure was the revelation that led to Morrow and Delos-Reyes inventing the wave energy device.
“As the wave passes over it, it compresses an air bladder that forces air through a closed system,” he explained. “It’s kind of a Rube Goldberg approach, but it’s really withstood the test of time. It’s outperformed expectations every step of the way.”
Although there’s less energy available on the bottom of the ocean than on the surface, the system contains few moving parts and the costs should be less at the end of the day, Morrow believes. Pending public and private financing, he hopes to see the DMP tested in the open ocean in a couple of years.
“I focus on my day job and play in the wave tank on the weekends,” said Morrow, who works full-time at Hewlett-Packard and lives inSalemwith his wife Nicole and sons Matthew and Nicholas.
The 40- by 100-foot full-scale devices would rest in an array similar to a checkerboard on the ocean floor–and it’s a perfect fit for a world in which the majority of the population resides close to the coast.
(As a sidenote, Morrow pointed out that undergrads today have a bit more leeway with using the big OSU wave tank.)