Maximizing Wave Power, by Design

Researchers at Portugal’s Technical University of Lisbon and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are working on a device to tap the power of waves, which was designed using millions of calculations in order to capture the maximum amount of energy possible in a specific location. The research (which was detailed in a recent issue of MIT’s EnergyFutures newsletter) was done to maximize the energy capture of a device called an oscillating water column (OWC) that has been used in water-power systems before, and is meant to be placed on or close to the shore; as waves hit the OWC the water level increases and decreases in the chamber, and in turn pushes trapped air into an opening, which drives a turbine.

The team plans to pilot the maximized OWC at the entrance of the Douro River in Porto, in northern Portugal, and eventually put three of them there, which together would generate 750 kilowatts of wave power. The group says the icing on the cake is that the OWCs can actually calm the waters of the area by absorbing some of the wave energy. The Portugal team is made up of Technical University of Lisbon Professors Antonio Falcao, Antonio Sarmento and Luis Gato, and MIT’s Professor of Engineering in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Chiang Mei.


MIT’s innovation, which Mei is spearheading, is the numerical model used to calculate how the waves will hit the OWC, how the water will react inside and outside of it, and how the water behaves in the exact location in which it is placed. Through the model the researchers can do the necessary calculations (likely using various computer modeling software) to help design the OWC to maximize the energy absorption for that specific location.

Wave power is a promising, largely untapped form of clean power, and startups like these 13 are designing various devices to capture waves, tides and currents. But as MIT’s Mei acknowledges in MIT’s EnergyFutures newsletter, wave power could very well remain in the pilot phase for several more decades before becoming a commercial form of power.

Image courtesy of MIT’s EnergyFutures