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Robert Trigaux

Energy from waves? SRI tests 'artificial muscle'



Sriwavebuoy Wake up and good morning. When one of the more fascinating organizations around comes to town (and starts a business here) and starts showing off its pursuits, we like to pay special attention.  The nonprofit research firm SRI International opened a St. Petersburg division last year that works closely with the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science. That's why we're curious about SRI's latest experiment -- which last year was tested right here in Tampa Bay -- conducted Monday a mile off Santa Cruz on the California coast. The goal: To test (see photo, courtesy of SRI) a new wave-powered generator, a floating device that its inventors say holds the promise of bringing energy to land.

"There's only so much you can do in the lab. At some point, you have to put it out in the water," Philip Von Guggenberg, SRI's business director, told the Santa Cruz Sentinel. As alternative energy ideas gain new traction with the incoming Obama White House, ocean waves are getting new attention because they are constant and reliable, close to the highly populated coasts where power needs are greatest, and, unlike other sources of electricity such as solar, can be harnessed with very basic technology.

SRI tested a buoy-mounted, wave-powered generator, part of a program sponsored by Hyper Drive Corp., a Japanese company focused on the development of wave-powered generators around the world. Where does SRI fit in? This wave-powered generator uses SRI's "artificial muscle" technology, a rubbery material that can generate electricity by simply being stretched and allowed to return to its original shape. It can generate electricity directly from the motion of waves without the need for complicated and costly hydraulic transmissions typically found in other wave-power generators. Here are more details.

Sriwavetampabay What's especially cool for the Tampa Bay area is SRI's 2007 test of the same technology in Tampa Bay. How much power could the St. Petersburg buoy consistently generate? At the moment, up to a whopping 5 watts, less power than needed for a household light bulb, according to last year's coverage in the St. Petersburg Times.

But new technologies start slowly. If things go well, says Peter Marcotullio, SRI's director of business development, buoys could be developed that generate 1,000 watts of power. String together a thousand, and that's a serious amount of energy. Ron Perline (shown in photo by Curtis Krueger of the St. Petersburg Times) and fellow scientists from SRI International devised the technology put on a buoy in Tampa Bay.

Best of all for the Tampa Bay business community, the "artificial muscle" technology described above was substantive enough to create a spin-off company in 2004 from SRI called, appropriately, Artificial Muscle Inc., based in Sunnyvale, Calif. It is this process of commercializing promising technologies that continues to create such a buzz here with the arrival of SRI, as well as Draper Laboratory and other tech research firms here.

-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist

[Last modified: Tuesday, June 1, 2010 11:23am]


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