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Riding the wave: Company seeks to harness power of the sea

By: ANDREW WINEKE
February 2, 2012
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photo - Stefan Siegel, president of Atargis Energy, checks a part on his wave energy converter before testing it in a wave tank at Texas A&M University. Photo by Photo courtesy John Van Winkle, U.S. Air Force Academy
Stefan Siegel, president of Atargis Energy, checks a part on his wave energy converter before testing it in a wave tank at Texas A&M University. Photo by Photo courtesy John Van Winkle, U.S. Air Force Academy 

Colorado Springs may be landlocked, but a local company could hold the key to unlocking the power of the sea — if it can navigate the tricky shoals that separate research from business.

Atargis Energy Corp., named after a mythical half-man, half-fish sea god, was founded two years ago to turn president and chief technology officer Stefan Siegel’s Air Force Academy research on wave energy into a workable product. In November, the company moved from Siegel’s garage to a 5,700-square-foot work space in south Colorado Springs, but it won’t be ready to face the commercial market for another three to five years.

“Right now, we’re totally in the valley of death,” Siegel said with a laugh. “Either it goes big in five years, or it goes under in less than that.”

Like most research conducted at the Air Force Academy, Siegel’s work on wave energy started out as a theoretical idea far removed from a practical application.

“A lot of our work here is basic research at the most fundamental level and very often patents don’t result,” said Mike Crane, director of sponsored programs at the academy. “We might have one or two candidates a year — it’s not a frequent situation that comes up.”

Siegel, who has a doctorate in aerospace engineering, was studying something called feedback flow control — a way of dealing with turbulence in fluid dynamics. It was a solution in search of a problem, he said. At a conference, Siegel said, “someone asked, ‘What’s the killer app for feedback flow control?’ and no one could define it at the time.”

Later, a colleague showed him an article on wave energy from a popular science magazine and he realized taming waves might be that killer application.

Research led to small scale testing, that led to larger scale testing and, pretty soon, the program had outgrown both what could be done at the Academy or in Siegel’s garage.

“We were assembling things out on the driveway. In July. In Pueblo,” said Rob Fredell, who was head of research at the Air Force Academy until he retired; he now serves as Atargis’ chief operating officer.

For Siegel and Fredell, taking an idea from theory to commercialization is a new experience, but the opportunity to create something that could change the world was tantalizing. Research, Siegel said, is a sheltered environment.

“I honestly enjoy it,” Siegel said of starting a business. “I felt the need to develop something that has use beyond publishing articles. It’s a lot of work, but it’s also very rewarding.”

Siegel’s design looks something like an paddle wheel or an ocean-going wheat combine, with horizontal hydrofoils attached to generators at either side. When it’s operating, waves churn into the hydrofoils and turn them, leaving calm water behind.

“The energy has to go somewhere,” Fredell said. “If we can smooth the ocean, we’re either Moses, or we’re engineers.”

Getting from models in a tank to operating units in the open ocean is not an easy path.

“You can’t believe how many wave energy converters have been shredded by Mother Nature,” Siegel said.

But, Siegel says, if you can harness the sea, wave energy offers many advantages over competing renewable energy sources: Because water is denser than air, a smaller unit can extract the same amount of energy, and, because waves build up over hundreds of miles, a wave energy operator can predict power output with hours or days of lead time, as opposed to wind and solar, which can stop generating on short notice.

“The thing about wave energy is, it’s not for lack of trying,” Siegel said. “Everyone can look at the data and agree this is a great resource.”

Atargis has built 1/10th scale versions of what is formally called a “cycloidal wave energy converter” and tested them in a giant wave tank in Texas usually used to test oil platform designs. Most of the major design obstacles have been worked out, Siegel said, but there are still kinks to be dealt with.

“Show stoppers are going out of style,” Siegel joked. “It’s really the business and the engineering side now — and it should be at this point. Otherwise, it would have been foolish to set up a company.”

There’s nothing magic about the design or construction, Fredell said. It’s steel, aluminum, fiberglass and off-the-shelf electronics.

“You look around and you don’t see nonobtanium here,” he said.

The key innovation is in measuring waves before they reach the hydrofoil and adjusting the blades’ pitch to best match the incoming wave.

“Every five to 10 seconds, we have to adjust our piano to keep it in tune,” is how Fredell explains it.

In concept, it works, but to build a successful company, Atargis will have to deliver that resource at prices comparable to competing power sources. It all comes down to cost per kilowatt-hour, Fredell said.

“Coal has a 250-year head start on us,” he said.

Atargis is currently being funded by a Department of Energy grant, along with some investments from friends and family members. Siegel and Fredell said they can’t discuss investors at this point, but they hope to find a launch customer so that the first full-scale unit actually generates power commercially.

If the obstacles can be overcome, if the design can be perfected, if the wave energy converter survives the transition from wave tanks to open ocean, then, Siegel says, their work will be done.

“We’ll develop the technology up to the point where you can build these things,” Siegel said. “At the point in time where the technology is mature enough, I think I’ll lose interest.

“What drives us is not just the sheer commercial success,” he said. “It’s a mix of engineering curiosity, trying to make a difference in the world... and to make this a commercial success, too.”

Contact Andrew Wineke: 636-0228 Twitter @awineke
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