Wed, Oct 10, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Turning waves into power

Michael Whelan's wave energy converter could use \nstormy Galway Bay to generate electricity 300 days \na year, serving hundreds of Irish homes


If Michael Whelan's dream comes true, the Atlantic Ocean will soon help keep the lights on in Ireland. And if it does, it will complete a circuit for Whelan: Thirty years ago he was a commercial diver working on North Sea oil and gas installations. Returning to Ireland in the 1980s, he started a marine towing and salvage company.

After selling that business, he opened a quayside hotel in Cobh near Cork. But now he has returned to the sea -- to generate electricity from wave power.

His enthusiasm for the project, a wave energy converter called an Ocean Energy Buoy, knows no limits. While everyone else was celebrating Christmas Day last year, Whelan was mooring his 28-tonne prototype in Galway Bay. Over the next eight months, the quarter-scale model was battered by storms.

Whelan felt like a fish out of water when he opened The Waters Edge Hotel on the quayside at Cobh -- and the lure of the sea soon grew irresistibly strong.

"Building a hotel was great fun, but when I started selling food and beds to people, I knew I was in the wrong business," Whelan said. "I had an interest in renewable energy and I needed to get my feet back into the water."

He then met Tony Lewis of the Hydraulics and Maritime Research Center at University College Cork, who in turn introduced him to oscillating water columns which drove turbines to generate electricity. Inspired by what he saw, Whelan promptly funded further research and formed a technology company -- Ocean Energy -- in 2002.

"We were going forward to try and develop a floating structure to capture wave energy," said Whelan, who later sold his hotel.

Over the past five years, Whelan has pioneered wave technology in Ireland with the assistance of the Hydraulics and Maritime Research Center, the Irish Marine Institute and Queens University Belfast. He started with a 1:50 scale model, working up to the latest quarter-scale device. He even took a 1:15 scale prototype to France for tank testing.

scale model

The current quarter-scale buoy -- 12m long, 6m wide and 6m high -- was built using the data obtained from earlier models. In section, the Ocean Energy Buoy is an L-shape lying on its back with a vertical oscillating water column. The wave motion alters the subsurface pressure to drive air in and out. This movement is harnessed by a Wells air turbine -- the only moving part - -- which turns the air flow into a continuous rotary action in one direction.

After a 300km tow from Cork, the Ocean Energy Buoy was moored in Galway Bay in a spot chosen to match -- for scale the conditions that a full-sized version will face. It looks more like a small barge than a buoy.

"She's very strongly built. The front end is blunt and the back end is open to the sea. When she lifts and falls, she acts like a jet boat and the mooring forces go flat," Whelan said. "On New Year's Eve, we had one of the worst storms in Galway Bay in over 20 years."

After riding out the storm unscathed, the buoy spent the next eight months collecting air flow, pressure and mooring force data. Although not fitted with a Wells turbine, the trial confirmed that a commercially viable source of electricity was possible.

Whelan recently retrieved the buoy from the sea for cleaning and a fresh coat of paint. And now he's installing a small 16-kilowatt power generation system for a further trial.

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