Harnessing the power of moving water is one of civilization’s oldest forms of energy production, but only in the last 140 years has society been able to use that power to generate electricity. Michigan was home to one of the very first hydroelectric facilities in the world—which provided electric lighting for the city of Grand Rapids starting in 1880. Once again, the state is at the forefront of hydroelectric innovation. Inspired by the movement of fish through water, researchers at U-M’s Marine Renewable Energy Lab are pioneering a new technology that would unlock boundless potential for clean energy production without disrupting aquatic ecosystems or generating harmful emissions.
Led by Michael Bernitsas, the Mortimer E. Cooley collegiate professor of naval architecture and marine engineering at U-M, researchers are reinventing the way hydroelectric power is produced by taking advantage of naturally occurring currents. Instead of capturing hydroelectric flows by damming rivers and sending water through a turbine, their invention would generate electricity, by harnessing vortex-induced vibrations from water’s natural currents.
The technology, named VIVACE (pronounced vi-VAH-chē) for Vortex Induced Vibrations for Aquatic Clean Energy, has the potential to unlock untold clean energy production. Conventional hydroelectric facilities typically require water to flow at speeds of six to eight miles per hour, but VIVACE can function at speeds as low as one mile per hour, making it possible to produce energy from previously untapped rivers, streams, lakes or oceans. The added advantage of VIVACE is that it doesn’t require expensive or environmentally perilous dams because it can be placed unobtrusively on the bottoms of waterbodies.
The technology is currently being tested beneath the waters of the St. Clair River near Port Huron, Michigan, fittingly within sight of the train depot where a young Thomas Edison once worked. The technology is not yet commercially viable, but the team remains dedicated to their mission to unlock the next breakthrough in advanced clean energy.
“We have a good device, but taking principles from schools of fish and turning them into mechanical devices takes time,” Bernitsas said. “It’s a long process, but for us, it’s also very exciting” (Cherry 2016b).
URC researchers are not stopping at producing energy from beneath the waves; they are also reinventing how we capture the sun’s energy. Professor Richard Lunt, the Johansen Crosby endowed associate professor of chemical engineering and materials science at MSU, and his team have invented a transparent luminescent solar concentrator. This technology could fundamentally change the solar industry by enabling windows or virtually any clear surface to act as a solar panel.
Until now, traditional solar photovoltaic technology involved mounting specialized panels on rooftops or as standalone fixtures. Limits to how much rooftop space or developable land is available, especially in urban settings where space is at a premium, present a significant drawback to expanding solar energy generation with traditional opaque panels.
With new transparent solar technology, the applications and potential for solar energy are seemingly endless—imagine every window in a skyscraper doubling as a solar panel or cell phones charging just by being left in the sun.
According to Professor Lunt, “this technology offers a promising route to inexpensive, widespread solar adoption on small and large surfaces that were previously inaccessible” (Henion and Lunt 2017).
As for how widespread this technology could be, researchers have estimated that transparent solar technology could one day supply around 40 percent of the U.S.’s energy demand.
Beyond finding new ways to capture energy, researchers at WSU are coming up with ways to better store energy. Lead researcher Leela Arava, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is experimenting with advanced battery storage technology that has the potential to be more powerful, better for the environment, and less expensive than today’s technology. The potential for high-energy lithium-sulfur (Li/S) batteries is great. They can store up to five times more energy than current lithium-ion batteries. But to date their development has been limited, due to challenges in overcoming their short life-cycle and efficiency. Professor Arava and his team are working on a new configuration to stabilize and extend Li/S battery performance. Their work could lead to the development of, as he notes, “electric vehicles that match the power, range and cost of combustion engines” (WSU 2016).