They say the moment of innovation is like the flash of a light bulb illuminating a darkened room: suddenly everything is clear. For Jeffrey Wessner, 68, a Point Reyes Station sculptor and designer, that “aha” moment for a new energy source came several feet underwater in the Pacific Ocean, as the waves pounded onto him.
Diving for abalone in a wetsuit and fins, Mr. Wessner utilized the age-old trick of grabbing onto the stems of kelp plants in order to not be tossed about in the surf. One day, as the waves crashed, he considered what a tremendous amount of energy they possessed: a swelling wall of water pushed into motion by wind or a storm half the world away.
He thought, how much strength must the kelp have to withstand the perpetual beating? “They’re naturally designed by God (if you will) or nature, or whatever it is—evolution—to survive in the world’s most difficult environment,” Mr. Wessner said.
He thought he could use the seaweed’s natural form to harness that energy, and was sparked into action by a televised speech: “The president gets on the television, and he says, ‘We need more American entrepreneurs to get in the garage and invent new alternative energy ideas.’ I said, ‘Duh, you’re talking to me, man.’”
Last week, Mr. Wessner was issued a patent—number 8,692,402—for seaweed, his acronym for “sea-wave electrical energy dynamo.” (He thanks the librarians in Point Reyes for directing him to guide books that helped him navigate the patent system.)
In his application, Mr. Wessner says the device will create “a new method and design, a new approach, a novel system to extract, if you will, electricity from the forces available in ocean waves and tidal currents and river flow.”
Outside the Golden Turtle Gallery on a recent blustery afternoon, Mr. Wessner reclined on a parking block on the ground as he described his tinkering. Behind roundish,
gold-rimmed glasses, Mr. Wessner’s eyes enlarged as he arrived at his point. His mind cycled through concrete facts into big ideas and back, like a cresting wave: underwater plants are fodder for revolutionary ideas of energy production, which in turn becomes taxes for children’s school books, as his patent application describes.
“Man often thinks big when trying to envision electricity production sufficient to our need; the scale of demand seems to force the inventive mind into “mega” solutions to our hunger for voltage,” he explained.
“When the sea turns black and grey and changes the landscape in its wake, no machine made by man is capable of managing all the different moods and temperaments of the earth’s largest thing. Only the humble limpet, or perhaps the crab or snail, can survive the pounding and these matters of ocean survival all succumb to the ocean eventually.”
The prototype is still in his garage, appropriately enough, a machine reminiscent of sci-fi movies even though its 15 components look picked from the scrapyard, like bicycle wheels and machinery from an old Chevy, and have been hand-painted orange. Imitative of the kelp stems that bend between the float and fronds and the rooted holdfast at the sea floor, his electrical generator has a floating turbine that is connected to an alternator by a long, flexible shaft.
“Small, flexible, resilient, movable and unobtrusive,” the invention works on the same principles as hydroelectric and wind power, harnessing the energy of natural processes, but it has the added benefit of needing little maintenance, as it goes with the flow of the waves.
Mr. Wessner has speculated that few devices have used the power of the waves because the surf is so turbulent, but that is exactly what his invention relies on.
“Whipped and tossed in the waves. It is the life of the seaweed to be tossed by the hurricanes,” he wrote in his application. “Performing like the whip of a lion tamer, the seaweed, theoretically, generates its greatest amount of electricity in the worst conditions; and when the chaos has passed the weed resumes its rhythmic oscillations.”
The various alternators, anchored in place, can each generate about 745 watts, or 1 horsepower, Mr. Wessner said. These can be wired back to shore, each turbine like the head of some benevolent Hydra, barely visible on the horizon.
The next step is to find like-minded backers who can increase the scale of production to build enough of the small devices—about $150 each—for a garden and eventually forests. Soon enough, this bright idea might power more than a few light bulbs.