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September 13, 2010— Ottawa, Ontario

In 2006, a Canada-wide study found that the combined might of waves and tides off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts could meet a large proportion of our energy needs. Buoyed by these results, companies across the country are racing to develop new technologies that can economically convert wave and tidal power into electricity.

“This is mainly an engineering challenge,” says Charles Wood, President of Vancouver Island-based Seawood Designs. “There are more than 60 companies worldwide in the wave energy sector, trying to find the best approach.”

Did you know?

According to a comprehensive inventory of Canada’s marine renewable energy resources, the total wave energy potential at depths of 1 kilometre off Canada's Pacific coast averages about 37,000 megawatts (MW), while the total wave energy potential off the Atlantic coast is almost 150,000 MW — more than double our current electricity demand. However, only a fraction of these amounts can be extracted and converted into useful power.

Seawood Designs is itself developing a wave energy harvesting device called SurfPower —“basically a wing-shaped pontoon, which rides up and down on the ocean’s surface,” says Wood. The pontoon is connected to the ocean floor via a long, slender piston pump. The piston pump delivers seawater at high pressure into a pipe on the sea floor. “You would couple maybe two dozen of these devices together,” he adds. “The high pressure water would be collected on shore where it would run a turbine and generator, which means SurfPower could feed power directly to the electrical grid.”

Technical officer Colin Keats watches as a SurfPower pontoon is lowered into the NRC-IOT wave tank

Technical officer Colin Keats watches as a SurfPower pontoon is lowered into the NRC-IOT wave tank.

Fine-tuning SurfPower’s design is one of the biggest challenges that Wood has faced. “Last year, Charles needed to do some computer modelling to test his design assumptions,” says Martyn Ward, an industrial technology advisor for the NRC Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP). “He was interested in hiring a West Coast firm to model the performance of his device. I already knew the company and agreed that it was a good choice, so NRC-IRAP was well-placed to assist both companies.”

Charles Wood beside a one-tenth scale model of his SurfPower wave energy harvesting device.

Charles Wood beside a one-tenth scale model of his SurfPower wave energy harvesting device.

Based on the results, Seawood Designs built a one-tenth scale model of SurfPower, which was tested this spring in a wave tank operated by the NRC Institute for Ocean Technology (NRC-IOT) in St. John’s. The purpose was to evaluate the device’s behaviour under real-world conditions and determine the total amount of energy that could be generated from a full-scale version of the technology. “The tank testing confirms that our computer model works very well,” says Wood. “It also helps us decide what we should do next and where we should look for improvements, which is worth its weight in gold.”

For example, Wood learned that SurfPower’s pontoon, as predicted by computer modelling, tends to “over-recover” its position following a wave, which reduces the amount of energy it can harvest. “We will need to slow down the pontoon as it comes back to its starting position,” he says. This calls for another round of computer modelling, followed by revisions to the physical model “so we can return to NRC-IOT for further testing as soon as possible.”

From seawater to drinking water

Charles Wood believes SurfPower has the potential not only to produce electrical power but also to provide clean drinking water via “reverse osmosis” in areas where fresh water is scarce, such as arid regions of coastal Africa. (Reverse osmosis is used to turn seawater into drinking water by removing salt and other substances.) “I think reverse osmosis will be the first economically viable application for our system because it pumps seawater at about one thousand pounds per square inch, which is the pressure needed to operate a reverse osmosis plant,” he says.

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