Innovators: A Girl Who Loves Buoys This electrical engineer turns waves into watts By Reed McManus
IF YOU'RE GOING TO TAP THE WATERS off the ruggedly beautiful Oregon coast for electricity, you'd want the effort spearheaded by someone who appreciates the ocean. A surfer or scuba diver, perhaps. Or a competitive swimmer. Someone who named her daughter after the Hawaiian word for dolphin--now that would be comforting. You'd want Annette von Jouanne, an electrical engineering professor at Oregon State University.
Von Jouanne is director of the school's Wallace Energy Systems & Renewables Facility, the most sophisticated university-based laboratory of its kind in the United States. Working with Oregon State's O. H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory, state and federal agencies, and a growing list of private companies, von Jouanne is promoting the Oregon coast as one of the most promising areas in the country to exploit wave energy. The potential is huge--wave energy packs a wallop compared with wind or solar--but so are the obstacles: The equipment must generate electricity while withstanding the marine environment in general and Oregon's monstrous winter ocean surges in particular, all without damaging the environment.
It's the kind of challenge that inspires von Jouanne. She has been tinkering since she was six years old, she says, "taking apart alarm clocks and calculators. I was especially interested in the internal components of my family's television." Von Jouanne claims she timed her Phillips-head adventures so that she could reassemble everything by the time her parents returned home, but it's doubtful she would have been too severely punished had she been caught transistor in hand. Von Jouanne was raised in a "Boeing family" in Seattle: Her father was an engineer for the aerospace giant, and her two brothers work for the company today.
In high school, she garnered an internship at Boeing; no surprise there. "It was always assumed I'd be an engineer," she says.
Von Jouanne's interest in wave energy comes easily: "I've always liked water," the former collegiate swimmer says. And she means it. Von Jouanne designed the dual-flume workout pool she and her husband, Alex Yokochi, a three-time Olympic swimmer from Portugal and chemical engineering professor at Oregon State, use daily at their Corvallis home.
After she began working at the school's Motor Systems Resource Facility in 1995, von Jouanne says she and then-director Alan Wallace often talked about the "tremendous amount of energy in waves and our respect for their energy." (The lab, which has done pioneering work in wind energy turbines and hybrid gas and electric vehicles, was renamed this year to honor Wallace, who died in 2006.) Their curiosity led them to study data collected by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration buoys off Oregon's coast.
"Because of west-to-east global winds," von Jouanne explains, "there's significant wave energy power off the west coast of large land masses. Oregon's coast is a sweet spot because our waves have been building up all across the Pacific."
Since water has 832 times more "energy density" than air, you can extract more power from a smaller volume, which means at a lower cost than is possible with wind or solar. Wave power is also available 80 to 90 percent of the time, compared with wind at 45 percent and solar at 35 percent. And wave power is uniquely predictable: Monitoring buoys in the open ocean can forecast the amount of energy that will be added to a utility's electrical grid ten or more hours ahead of its arrival.
So the race is on to surmount the significant survivability problems that come with trying to tame the ocean. While most commercially available wave energy systems capture a heaving wave's power using moored buoys that contain complicated hydraulic or pneumatic pistons, von Jouanne is working on a simpler electromagnetic design she calls a "direct drive." As a buoy bobs with a wave, a copper coil moves up and down around a magnet, producing power. "Only research will tell" if her electromagnetic design is efficient and storm-proof enough to trump existing systems.
In the meantime, von Jouanne cheers on the three private companies that have applied for permits from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to construct demonstration wave energy projects off the Oregon coast. Ocean Power Technologies' site near the town of Reedsport, for example, will take advantage of a former International Paper mill. While the mill itself has been demolished, its electrical transmission infrastructure remains, as does a two-mile-long effluent pipe--a ready-made conduit for underwater electric cables.
"This is a springboard," says von Jouanne. She repeats the word to describe upcoming tests on the potential effects of electromagnetic fields on whales and other marine life, discussions with local crabbers to avoid conflicts between mooring lines and prime fishing grounds, the opportunities available to her graduate students to work with wave-technology firms, and the possibility that the federal government may soon fund a national wave energy research facility in Oregon. Von Jouanne's enthusiasm--and passion for the ocean--makes the dive into wave energy seem a little less intimidating.
Photo by Cheryl Hatch/Oregon State University; used with permission.