Wave-energy converters beached by sinking funds

A black and white, futuristic-looking fiber-glass device sits in dry dock in the studio Foerd Ames shares here with a hot-air balloonmaker. ''A couple of crack engineers and some money,'' Mr. Ames says wistfully, ''and I think I could put one of these in the ocean for under $20,000.''

Boat, buoy, or bathyscaph?

The contraption is a patented ocean-wave-energy converter invented by Ames, a young architecture graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design. And the prototype works - although not as efficiently as it might with more sophisticated engineering, he says.

The principle of his tetrahedron-shape device is fairly simple: A series of pistonlike metal rods topped with shiny white spheres extend and retract from their neutrally buoyant base as ocean waves crest and trough. The rods - which look like shock absorbers - generate electricity as magnets inside move up and down through coils of copper wire.

The goal of harnessing energy from wave turbulence has not been lost on scores of inventors and scientists from the United States, Britain, Israel, Sweden, Norway, Japan, and many other countries. Patents have been awarded to these inventors - mostly during the energy crisis of the 1970s - for all manner of heaving, pitching, particle-motion, surging, pressure, pneumatic, hydraulic, outriggered, or wave-raft contraptions to convert waves into energy.

Although linear inductive generators such as Ames's device are not considered by ocean-wave-energy experts to be the most efficient means of converting wave energy into electricity, he says its one advantage over others to date is that it is modular. ''The very connection of one unit to other units serves to strengthen the stability of the unit,'' he says. The conical configuration of the converter as it sits in the water is advantageous as well, he says, as it is ''not unlike the rotated stance of a defensive boxer preparing to receive a punch.''

The converter would be very economical, Mr. Ames says, since its fiberglass, cloth, and basic electrical components are readily available and could be mass produced. The cost of positioning the device in the ocean with ''relatively light bottom anchorage'' would also be more economical, he says, than many similar devices that must be secured to the sea floor using heavy and expensive equipment.

Ames says he has already spent more than $3,000 to produce his prototype - of which $1,400 was for legal services to file his first patent application. He has just filed for a second patent, on his own, to modify the device.

But this is the stage where Foerd Ames and hundreds of other inventors often meet their nemesis: funding. How do they get the money to continue research and development?

Prof. Michael McCormick of the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., a prominent figure in ocean-wave-energy research, says that while ''there are many devices that have been patented, very few have any hope of getting anywhere today. The small inventor can't expect any help under the current administration. I hate to dampen anyone's enthusiasm, but right now we are sliding backwards. . . .

''The only chance he (the small inventor) has is to either convince a university professor to use his device for teaching students, con some private organization into giving money, or lie low and wait. . . .''

Prof. Chiang Mei of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology agrees that federal interest in wave power is just not there. He adds that wave power was in fashion in the mid-'70s, but interest in it was short-lived.

''We've always had a lot of inventors who would establish their patent rights and apply for government funds through the Department of Energy - until a couple of years ago,'' Professor Mei says. ''The DOE had some interest for two years, but now their wave-energy program is completely scratched.''

A DOE spokesman confirms this: ''There are no funds available at this time for any (new) projects.''

Dr. Mei says Britain and Norway have spent the most time and money on wave-energy research. The British sponsored three or four devices to the tune of program just last year. The Norwegians still have two projects going, but support is waning, he says.

This is partly due to the high cost of such research, safety and transmission problems, and the lack of a real need for auxiliary power. Interest is also ebbing because, as Dr. Mei observes, ''wave energy came on a little late . . .'' and now, ''probably the time is not yet ripe for this sort of thing.''

Without federal support at the university level, the professor adds, ''the interest is there, but to a limited degree. Nobody wants to devote his full energy on this sort of thing. If we don't get support on this, we work on something else.'' Independent inventors, on the other hand, don't take the same approach, ''and I'm very glad that they don't,'' Dr. Mei says.

Roland Tibbitts of the National Science Foundation's Small Business Innovation Research Program says some federal money is there, but competition is very tough. Inventors can compete with small businesses for federal funds by submitting proposals in 18 categories, including alternative-energy projects. This year, 10 federal agencies will award approximately $10.3 million for research and development.

While some DOE funds have been earmarked for ocean thermal-energy-conversion research (that is, using the temperature difference between layers of ocean water to generate electricity), the only wave-energy device currently attracting the Energy Department's attention and minimal funding for tests happens to be a pneumatic wave-energy-conversion device designed by Dr. McCormick. Money is tight, and there's little demand for low-cost alternative energy with the current oil glut.

Foerd Ames admits he is frustrated by the lack of success in getting support from some 50 companies and about 20 government agencies he has written to about his device.

''People have been interested in terms of conversation and such, and people have been nice enough take the time to write letters in response, but in terms of a commitment . . .''

Until the funding climate thaws, Ames says freelance architectural work on the side will help keep him afloat. In the meantime, he keeps working on his device.

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