Scuba diving physicist finds a fix for a vexing energy problem

A pilot project is underway at the Holiday Inn in the Maldives

by Stephen Stapczynski & Jason Clenfield / BLOOMBERG

The wind doesn’t always blow and clouds sometimes block the sun. But the ocean? It never stops moving.

That simple idea started to obsess Tsumoru Shintake (picture) soon after he moved to his new office on the island of Okinawa. A quantum physicist by trade, he was shocked by the Fukushima meltdowns and wondered how he could help wean Japan from nuclear power.

Looking out his window onto the crashing waves, he decided they were the answer: He’d harness them to generate affordable electricity. “The ocean is big and beautiful,” the 62-year-old scientist said. “We can use its energy.”

For about US$10,000 (RM40,654), the ponytailed professor managed to build a small propeller-driven turbine, but he didn’t have the money to test or market it. Then one night in late 2015, after demonstrating the machine on television, the phone rang. A real estate tycoon named Kohei Yamashita wanted to back his invention.

“We’re talking about perpetual power, 24 hours a day,” the 80-year-old investor explained in a recent interview at his suite in Tokyo’s financial district, where the family business co-owns a handful of skyscrapers. “It’s not going to be easy, but this could be important.”

Over the decades, wave power engineers have built all sorts of bobbing buoys and underwater mills that generate electricity, but no one has been able to solve the cost problem. The machines have been as big as ships and the financial failures have been just as big. In 2014, a year during which the industry suffered several high-profile bankruptcies, one company went out of business after a 3,000tonne prototype sank offshore of Southern Australia.

Shintake started with a plan no less gigantic. You could call it hubris, but he’d scored several engineering triumphs in his career that gave him confidence he could pull it off.

Just a few months before coming to the islands in 2011, he’d finished the construction of something called an x-ray particle accelerator, a device the length of several city blocks used to look inside the smallest parts of matter. The machine, which he designed for Japan’s national research institute, took years and US$400 million to build. (Earlier, at Stanford University, he invented an instrument for measuring the size of ultra-microscopic laser beams.)

What could be more complicated than that? The answer, it turns out, was trying to build an undersea farm of 300 huge turbines that would harness currents in the deep water off Okinawa. A test machine showed promise, but the long cables needed to bring electricity back to shore were expensive, the ocean was dangerous and unpredictable, and no investor would go near the project.

“The idea was great, but the reality was hard,” Shintake said by telephone from his lab at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University. “In the end, I didn’t think it could be done this century.”

Two wave energy converters being tested in the Maldives (Source: Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University)

Think Small

So, Shintake shifted tack. This time, he tried something much smaller, a device with about as much output as a household diesel generator. No single unit would come close to replacing a nuclear reactor, but it had the virtue of being affordable. Another concession to reality was designing it to sit in shoreline surf, instead of far out to sea, which would make it easier to repair.

The new machine, called the “wave energy converter”, looked like a miniature wind mill or a sunflower. For durability, Shintake gave it a flexible stalk and turbine blades that could bend back against big waves. He built the generator out of standardised parts used in electric car motors.

If the invention works, it would be one of those classic cases where an old riddle that seems intractable is solved by an outsider with fresh eyes, something that happens often enough in the fields of science and engineering, according to Sean Carroll, a biologist at the University of Maryland who’s written several books on science history.

“For these people who operate in two completely different spheres, it’s fascinating how the experience in one realm gives them the chops and the insight to tackle and solve problems,” Carroll said. “You also need a fair amount of courage to step out of your field. It takes some backbone — not just brains, but some guts.”

Having a patron helps, too. Yamashita, the investor, still remembers seeing Shintake and his device for the first time on TV. “There was this professor in the water doing something intriguing,” he said. “I had to contact him.”

The son of an oil magnate, Yamashita had been running the family’s real estate empire, Kokyo Tatemono Co, for decades and had made some side investments in medical devices and other tech. He was also a scuba diver, who’d often wondered why the ocean’s power wasn’t being tapped for energy.

The two men met in the summer of 2016 and, during a diving trip to the Maldives islands, agreed to collaborate.

Maldives Tests

Yamashita (left) with Shintake in the Maldives in May. (Source: Kokyo Tatemono Co)

Yamashita invested US$100,000 with openended promises of more. And, through contacts in the Maldives government, he convinced the Holiday Inn Resort on the tiny island of Kandooma to try the wave converter. Like every other business or home in the atolls, the hotel depends on diesel generators for most of its electricity, which are expensive to run and dirty.

“If successful, this project will not just be beneficial to our resort, but to the Maldives as a whole as it will greatly reduce the consumption and dependency on fossil fuel,” Holiday Inn GM Joseph Della Gatta said in an email.

Tests began in May with two mini-turbines, which Shintake says are producing roughly enough electricity for one of the resort’s 160 guest rooms. Within the next two years, the goal is to add enough full-scale generators to supply a third of the property’s energy.

Eventually, Shintake imagines hundreds of his machines, half-submerged in the surf along the Maldives’ aquamarine shorelines, providing clean, reliable power. The next step would be to try the technology in Japan, which for years has been ringing its coasts with massive concrete tidebreakers. Shintake says the nooks and crannies between those tetrapods could make perfect homes for whole fleets of his wave energy converters.

“No one has succeeded in harnessing power from breaking waves,” Shintake said. “But we’ve proved it, using these small machines. They’re not powerful yet, but before Christmas we’ll replace them with machines that are twice as big. Then, next summer, we’ll introduce a new model, which will be the real one. We’re moving step by step.” — Bloomberg