A fresh take on getting energy from the sea

Ramuel Maramara's design for a device that harvests energy from ocean waves has an unexpected side benefit: Fresh water.

By GREGORY ZELLER // On its way to providing cheap, clean electricity for all mankind, Stony Brook startup Brimes Energy is making a quick detour to address another human inconvenience: Earth’s limited freshwater supply.

Under the guiding hand of international industrialist Ramuel Maramara, Brimes Energy is working to reinvent the way oceanic energy is harvested, using gyroscopes inside an “artificial jellyfish” to capture the power inherent in undulating waves and crank out electricity.

Turns out the faux jellyfish has another fairly useful capability: desalination.

“We knew it could do it,” Maramara told Innovate LI. “I always had it in the back of my mind, but we didn’t tell anybody until we started testing.”

For now, he cautions, this should be taken with a grain of salt: The jellyfish device has not yet turned seawater fresh. But Maramara’s crew has been dumping a seawater solution into their 4,500-gallon wave tank, and the electronic device has indeed been cleaning it out.

“No seawater yet,” Maramara noted, “but it’s promising.”

The native Filipino, who immigrated to the United States in 2005 and has built multiple successful businesses (including Holbrook machine-maker Brimes Industrial Inc. and East Asia Mechatronics, an industrial machinist back in the Philippines), is hoping to dive into seawater soon. But even before his mechanical jellyfish takes that crucial step, Maramara has some idea about the commercial potential of his desalination tool.

Take, for instance, the 700 distinct islands and islets comprising the Lucayan Archipelago, including the Commonwealth of the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos islands. Due to a lack of a ready freshwater supply, some 670 of those islands are uninhabited, Maramara noted.

“Nobody wants to live on island where you have to take a boat every day to go get your daily supply of water,” the inventor said. “So we’re thinking, ‘Why not sell to them, and add value to all those little islands?’”

Another potential use is found in his native Philippines, where “the freshwater supply is becoming saltier and saltier,” according to Maramara.

“Higher sea levels are creeping over the land and getting into wells,” he said. “That’s another potential market, desalinating that brackish water and making it drinkable. Then we’ll just keep going until we get to the endgame, which is making it utility-sized.”

Salination of fresh water wells is also a growing problem on Long Island, we might add.

Brimes Energy, which is headquartered at the Clean Energy Business Incubator Program at Stony Brook University and houses its wave tank in a Holbrook laboratory, will seek a utility patent for the jellyfish’s desalination functions later this year. The company still plans to test the device for its original purpose – wave-energy-harvesting – on the open sea this summer.

While the wave tank, which measures 40 feet by 4 feet by 4 feet and is powered by a 50-kilowatt servomotor, is good for lab testing, the jellyfish’s true ability to generate electricity won’t be known for sure until a larger steel prototype is dumped into actual ocean conditions, probably in August, Maramara noted.

Brimes Energy is still about three years away from producing a commercially viable wave-based generator, but investors – inspired by the hot renewables market – are already lining up. Maramara, who graduated from the University of the Philippines with a degree in mechanical engineering, received $50,000 in seed money from an angel investor to launch Brimes Energy in 2014 and has subsequently landed another $175,000 in venture capital to fund R&D.

And that’s without getting deep into the jellyfish’s potential for desalination, a market that could soon rival the juicy renewable-energy field. According to the data tracker Desalination.com, 16,000 global desalination facilities have been constructed over the last 45 years, with some 60 million cubic meters of water now treated daily.

Drought-stricken California is set to open its first utility-scale desalination plant near Carlsbad in 2016 – the largest ocean desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere will provide 50 million gallons of drinking water per day – while the Saudi Gazette reported last month that Middle Eastern and North African governments will spend roughly $300 billion on water projects, primarily desalination efforts, through 2022.

A 2011 study published by market-research firm the Freedonia Group on the then-$8.6 billion global desalination industry predicted that worldwide demand for desalination products and services was increasing by 9.3 percent annually.

No doubt, desalination is fertile ground. So while he’s keeping his eyes on the renewable-electricity prize, Maramara is keen on learning how his jellyfish fits into the global saltwater scheme.

“That’s all were trying to do now,” the industrialist said. “Figure out how we can sell this technology.”