By GREGORY ZELLER // Renewable energy is boundless and everywhere – the ocean, the cars zooming by on the highway, even the mom pushing a baby stroller through the park all create “vibrational energy,” enough to power everything from a smartphone to an entire city.
The trick is harvesting it and efficiently converting it into electricity, which is not as easy as it sounds. The first patents for wave-energy devices date back to the late 18th century, and the secrets of optimal conversion elude engineers to this day.
That’s about to change, according to Reed Phillips, who believes he’s unlocked the promise of clean, renewable energy from ocean waves and other vibrational sources.
Phillips, founder and CEO of Stony Brook-based Energystics Ltd., is developing a new technology – five patents in hand, two pending and more to come, he says – that maximizes the conversion of linear motion into electricity. It’s supremely high-tech stuff, incorporating coil armatures, oscillating rotors and elastic stators, but Phillips actually caught the vibe as a child, after a near-death experience at Jones Beach.
Five decades ago, his life was nearly snuffed by a riptide that grabbed him and pulled him away from shore. The boy didn’t drown, but since the incident, “I’ve had a lot of respect for the ocean,” he noted, “and the energy it contains.”
Phillips knows he’s hardly the first big thinker to admire ocean energies. He also recognizes the efficiency challenge, the main reason nobody’s been able to harness wave power with commercial success. But the Stony Brook University physicist and North Sore-LIJ medical oncologist attacked the problem in stages – a purely scientific approach that’s led to a completely novel solution.
First, Phillips considered that marine environments – considering the weather, the corrosive action of seawater and the difficulties inherent to installing and servicing ocean-based equipment – are “the world’s toughest place to operate anything.” So he realized early on that any technology designed to harvest ocean energies “had to be ultra-simple.”
“The less moving parts, the better,” he said.
Next, the scientist – who followed an SBU bachelor’s degree in physics with a medical degree from Brooklyn’s Downstate Medical Center, a residency at Long Island Jewish Hospital and a medical oncology fellowship at New York-Presbyterian Hospital – decided the tech would have to be “environmentally friendly and very acceptable.”
It also had to be scalable to different bodies of water and “economically viable,” Phillips added, lest his wave-energy dreams be washed away.
With these parameters in mind, he took his lifelong fascination with physics, computing, electronics and other disciplines and started researching technologies that might fit the bill. The basic problem, as he saw it, was that linear motion – the up-and-down movement of undulating ocean waves, for instance – is basically incompatible with rotary generation, the standard tech used to power most electrical grids.
His answers would ultimately be found in the manipulation of magnetic fields.
“Electricity is made every time you move a magnetic field past a stationary conductor, like a copper wire,” the scientist noted. “Mechanical energy gets transferred to electrical energy.
“I succeeded in devising a new way of shaping these magnetic fields and focusing them down so that none of the fields are wasted,” he added. “I created a much more efficient device that makes the conversion cost-effective.”
The tech directs the magnetic fields with carefully placed coil stacks, focusing them to increase efficiency. That’s the extremely dumbed-down version – obviously, the electromagnetic braking and magnetic-flux leakage mitigation is much more involved – but the bottom line, according to Phillips, is it works.
Now, years of trial and error have brought the world the Vibristor linear electric generator power-harvester, a revolutionary capture-and-storage device that efficiently captures vibrational energy, and not just from the ocean.
A part of SBU’s Clean Energy Business Incubator Program and a resident of the university’s Advanced Energy Research & Technology Center, Phillips’ circa-2012 startup is fast at work creating scalable versions of the Vibristor, including ever-smaller models that, ultimately, could be built directly into a smartphone or similar device.
Between powering pocket-sized electronics and harvesting the incalculable energies of the oceans, there are any number of potential applications: Vibristors that capture vibrations from highways to power streetlights, devices that can provide emergency power to boats … the possibilities, according to Phillips, are endless.
They’re also challenging. While the basic Vibristor technology works, scaling it is another matter.
“I can use huge magnets and huge coils, or I can scale it down to tiny magnets and tiny coils,” Phillips noted. “It’s just a matter of picking the appropriate size and realizing how much power you want. But obviously, while the science allows it, the engineering is formidable. Every application of the Vibristor technology requires its own engineering strategy.”
To that end, Phillips is seeking partners to join his extractable-energy crusade. He’s already found some: A group of SBU graduate students showcased a Vibristor at Tuesday’s Long Island Tech Day event, and will be developing a smaller version designed to be mounted on, and generate power from, mountain bikes, enough to power GPS systems and other electronics.
Now, the Energystics founder is on the hunt for other partners with the engineering expertise to tackle unique scaling challenges.
“I’m not looking for somebody to give me money and look for a quick exit strategy,” Phillips said. “It has to be somebody with a technological background, someone who will take an ongoing interest in the company.”
He’s also applying for a $475,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, his first attempt at outside funding, after ponying up $30,000 to launch Energystics and funding the operation himself to this point, a total of about $140,000.
The light at the end of this tunnel, according to the entrepreneur, could actually be self-powered.
“My technology has the capability of supplying a significant portion of the energy requirements of the United States, thereby cutting our carbon footprint and reducing the cost of hydrocarbon imports,” Phillips said. “And because it can be mass-produced, it would provide a significant number of jobs.
“This could help the United States maintain its position as a dominant advanced-technology player.”
What’s It? Scalable power harvesters that convert motion into electricity
Brought To You By: Physicist, oncologist and all-around big thinker Reed Phillips
All In: $140,000 self-invested by Phillips, covering insurance, lab and computer equipment and operating costs
Status: It works! Next up, scaling the thing for different applications