It is not science fiction. Someday, we may be harnessing these natural energy sources thanks to a nascent technological domain that just got its first patent: Distributed Embedded Energy Conversion Technologies (or DEEC-Tec, deck-tech for short).
The first patent of the invention is specific for applications in marine renewable energy: clean energy generated by the waves, currents and tides of the ocean and river. But DEEC-Tec could eventually transform everyday energy sources, including nearly any physical movement or dynamic change of form, into electricity or other usable forms of energy.
“The DEEC-Tec domain has legs and is growing,” said Blake Boren, senior engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and lead inventor of the patent along with Jochem Weber, chief engineer of NREL’s water energy program. DEEC-Tec may very well have the legs to move into buildings, clothes and streets, but it’s starting in the ocean. “The patent shows that we are gaining momentum in a fruitful research area,” said Boren.
So how does this promising DEEC-Tec domain actually work?
Imagine a sea snake. That snake can swim thanks to an intricate collaboration between its many flexible muscle cells. In the DEEC-Tec domain, individual energy converters work together, like muscle cells, to create a larger structure, just like the sea snake. Most devices use a generator to convert ocean energy into usable, clean and renewable energy sources, including electricity. But DEEC-Tec accumulates its many tiny converters to form a larger, often flexible, energy converter.
“DEEC-Tec offers researchers and developers a whole new way of thinking about how to convert marine energy from ocean waves, tides and currents into more usable forms of energy, such as electricity,” said Boren.
Combined, these tiny energy converters can form the basis of textiles, bulkheads, support structures and more, building a range of DEEC-Tec-based energy conversion structures. For example, DEEC-Tec-based wave energy converters might look like balloons twitching and expanding, snakes swaying, or paddles twisting and bending to harness the energy of ocean waves.
These adaptable balloons, snakes, and paddles could also have great benefits. Flexible wave energy converters, also known as flexWECs, can harness and convert waves into usable energy throughout their entire structure. So, no matter where or how wave energy interacts with a device’s structure, energy converters will be there to turn that wave into energy.
Since flexWECs do not concentrate ocean wave energy into a single energy converter (such as a lone rotary generator or hydraulic piston cylinder) or a power transmission system (such as a driveshaft or gearbox), they avoid build-up of ocean wave forces that could potentially disrupt or damage the machine. In fact, other wave energy converters often use large steel frames to protect their rigid bodies from ocean forces, but these frames can be expensive and heavy. Instead, flexWECs can go with the flow.
FlexWEC’s frames could also allow them to harness energy from a much wider range of ocean locations and wave energy frequencies. “Someday, there may be DEEC-Tec-based marine renewable energy farms off the coast of California, Oregon or Washington, with these types of wave energy converters potentially powering coastal communities or utility networks. in general, “said Boren.
High costs are one of the last major hurdles the burgeoning marine energy industry must overcome in order to start powering those communities. And DEEC-Tec’s flexible archetypes could offer a particularly cost-effective way to harness wave energy. Since flexWECs house much more than a power converter, they may require less maintenance; if only a small group of tiny converters required repair, all the others could continue to function.
FlexWECs can also be built with more sustainable and cost-effective materials, making them easier to install and control once at sea. Greater control could mean greater energy production, allowing operators to adapt to changing ocean conditions to harness the greatest amount of potential energy.
As the DEEC-Tec domain is still relatively new, Boren and his team are working hard to explore exactly how these technologies could create a new generation of marine energy devices or other energy-generating materials. And Boren’s recent patent was a big push towards a DEEC-Tec future.
“The patent gives further credence to what DEEC-Tec could become,” said Boren. “We now have a patented foundation to further develop and promote DEEC-Tec both within NREL and with our external collaborators and industry.”
Learn more about it NREL’s Distributed Embedded Energy Conversion Technologies. And subscribe to the NREL newsletter on water energy, The current, to make sure you don’t miss a water supply update.
Originally published on NREL. By Caitlin McDermott-Murphy
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