Ocean Power Catches A New Wave


Stephen Luntz

Stephen has a science degree with a major in physics, an arts degree with majors in English Literature and History and Philosophy of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication.

Freelance Writer

301 Ocean Power Catches A New Wave
The bioWAVE system, shown here in an artist's impression, uses designs based on kelp to generate energy from the oceans. Credit: BioPower Systems

A wave power unit inspired by the way kelp strands sway with the ocean's flow has been installed off Port Fairy, Australia. Wave power is still in the development stage with multiple, very different designs jostling to prove themselves as the prospect most deserving of mass production. The installation last week of Sydney-based company BioPower's design, known as the bioWAVE, represents the arrival of a new, and radically different, contender.

The force of marine storms and the corrosive effects of salt water are an intimidating combination to resist long-term. Nevertheless, in many locations energy from the oceans has the major advantage of being more consistent than solar or wind. Dr. Tim Finnigan of BioPower reasoned that marine species have been surviving oceanic conditions for millions of years and wondered whether systems based on their forms might have the best chance of harvesting the ocean's energy without being destroyed. BioPower Systems was established to develop this notion.


Two concepts emerged from this idea. The bioWAVE, which sways like kelp fronds as waves roll overhead, has so far proven more successful. The bioSTREAM swims through tidal currents like a shark's tail, but is currently on hold while BioPower focuses on the bioWAVE.

As with so many new designs, progress has been slower than anticipated, with various demonstration projects delayed. However, the installation of a 250 kilowatt grid-connected system marks bioWAVE's biggest step yet. Port Fairy, 250 kilometers (155 miles) southwest of Melbourne, encounters waves that have rolled uninterrupted from Antarctica, building up whenever wind has blown on their long voyage. Consequently, the bioWAVE should be able to produce energy even when the turbines at nearby wind farms are stilled. Spokesperson for BioPower Sabine Prill told IFLScience that while part of the aim of the project is to test the how much of its theoretical capacity bioWave can produce, allowing for periods of unhelpful conditions, "we do believe it will be higher than wind".

The $15 million (AU$21 million​) required to build the new system would buy far more energy from wind or solar plants, but that is always true when prototypes are compared with established technologies. The triple 26-meters-tall (81 feet), bottom-mounted structures are intended to operate for a year. After this, a 1 megawatt commercial-scale system is to be installed in 40 to 45 meters (125 to 150 feet) of deep water with a design modified to take into account what has been learned in the process. The majority of funding for the project has come from the threatened Australian Renewable Energy Agency.

Along with its distinctive swaying motion, which transfers energy to BioPower's patented O-Drive for conversion to electricity, bioWave can recognize the rare storms powerful enough to pose a threat. In such circumstances it will lie flat on the seabed, avoiding one of the main dangers that have hampered the growth of other designs to harness ocean energy.


Investigations are underway for the viability of installing a bioWAVE module at nearby King Island, where wind, solar and batteries have already allowed the previously diesel-dependent population of almost 2000 to get 65 percent of their electricity from renewable energy.