Making waves – Q&A with wave energy guru Alvin Smith

6 March 2012 (Last Updated March 6th, 2012 18:30)

An innovative 'marine bicycle pump' that traps wave energy before pumping it ashore is changing industry conceptions. Heidi Vella talks to former rally racer Alvin Smith about his new invention, named Searaser, which claims to solve many of the big issues currently stalling the tidal-wave power industry.

Making waves – Q&A with wave energy guru Alvin Smith

Alvin Smith is currently turning heads with his simple invention of an underwater bicycle pump - the Searaser - which harnesses energy from waves and swells in the ocean and pumps them ashore, in the manner of a back-to-front form of hydro.

Last year, in 2011, it was voted one of the 'Top 15 Inventions of the Decade' by the British Library and was recently backed by green energy company Ecotricity, who pledge to take the Searaser nationwide in five years time.

A born inventor, Smith built his first home by the time he was 21 and spent the next 25 years building cars and rally racing. This was until one day when he was playing with a ball in his swimming pool and felt the energy released when the ball bobbed to the surface. This was his light bulb moment and the beginning of the Searaser's birth.

Heidi Vella: The Searaser has been a long time in the making [the initial idea was born in 1997] how far is development at present?

Alvin Smith: Well, in 2006 we filed the patent for it then we filed further patents around the world, so we are holding some patents already in many countries.

We are now going through finance analysis on our latest pump, when that finance analysis has been approved we will commence building the pump and putting a half size - volume wise - but two thirds visually of a full size pump, at the new test site off the South Coast, just off Falmouth in Devon, in the UK.

HV: The first round of testing for the Searaser took place in 2009, what did you learn from this?

"A born inventor, Smith built his first home by the time he was 21 and spent the next 25 years building cars and rally racing."

AS: Yes, March / April 2009 was when I put the first pump I built in the water for a proper test pumping water ashore.

That was 400 metres offshore and we pumped it to between 15 metres and 20 metres head.

Obviously it varies because you have a five metre tide, but the maximum it was lifting to was a 20 metre head above the waves.

Then we filled 10,000 litre tanks and then flowed that back through to our mine to produce the electricity.

We believe we are the first people to have produced electricity from wave power on the south coast of the UK, I don't know of anybody else who has done it using cold seawater - do you? So that is a claim I'd like to make and see if it gets challenged.

HV: The Searaser system means that water can be stored in a reservoir - how does this work?

AS: There are two parts of a Searaser - you can either pump water directly to a turbine and forget the reservoir, but the major advantage of the reservoir is, and where, I believe, we score over every other major device - unless you know of one?

"So, whereas if you are pumping the standard full size Searaser will light, say, 90 homes - that goes up to 110 because you have been able to store eight hours of water."

We are pumping large volumes of water ashore at low pressure, we can directly drive it to turbines but we can also, in the process, because we use large volumes of water, store the energy as an ordinary atmospheric pond whether it be a tank, a tower, a reservoir or a natural reservoir lined.

The huge advantage is if you are producing energy for, let's say, 16 hours a day, eight of those hours energy is not needed, the nuclear up and running then has to waste that energy or use for purposes that are not profitable.

If you store that energy as water, then at the height demand at six in the morning the next day, you have an extra third of your energy stored.

So, whereas if you are pumping the standard full size Searaser will light, say, 90 homes - that goes up to 110 because you have been able to store eight hours of water.

When I say 80 to 110 homes that is per metre wave - two metre waves will give you double that, so you have 238 homes, three metre waves go up to 3257 homes and so on, it just multiplies up.

HV: One of the biggest obstacles in tidal wave power is the hostile ocean. How do you expect the Searaser to cope in the open sea?

AS: In my view, I think it is extremely important the devices are tested first remotely to beat the major hurdle which is: can it survive in the marine environment over a 12 month period? The chances are you are going to meet with force eight or ten gales, and you are going to start to get a picture whether this thing is going to work or not.

We are very confident as we have already been out to sea with a very small one, and the bigger these things get the much stronger they are and they have to be a certain length to cope with the five-and-a-half metre tides we get around here.

So they have to be fairly long anyway. Now, as these devices get bigger, they don't get any longer but they get wider in diameter so the tubes are stronger, just the same as if you put a scaffolding pole out there ten metres long it would bend, but if you put a great big piece of pipe out there it will cope much better.

HV: Another issue is protecting the environment. How environmentally friendly is the Searaser?

AS: The difference is we have no electrics in the water. No hydraulic oils onboard - so no pollution threats whatsoever. This pump can rupture and all you are going to do is put seawater to seawater, so that is not a problem - the fact is there are no pollution problems.

We actually use the marine growth to help lubricate the pump, it's out there growing all the time and is a very, very slippery green weed. I have got that in my patent, that it lubricates the sliding part.

HV: Compared to a tidal wave turbine how cheap is the Searaser to connect in the sea?

AB: If you were given the task of making a tidal turbine or a Searaser I think you'd pick the Searaser. Your current turbine is going to have blades that are going to have to be put up with all the forces of turning openly in the ocean - the problem with mammals and things going through them.

You are then going to need seals going around the shaft when it goes into the water, as any seawater going in could possibly destroy the turbine.

With the Searaser water just flows straight through it, you haven't got to have those costly seals and costly copper parts and special metals to carry the electricity ashore, we just carry the water ashore in a steel pipe or a heavy duty poly-ethylene pipe, which is weighted down.

HV: You've said before that it could be cheaper than any existing forms of electricity. Is that accurate?

"With Searaser water just flows straight through it, you haven't got to have those costly seals and costly copper parts and special metals to carry the electricity."

AS: Let's start right at the beginning here. If you said to me I have a new invention and I said what we are going to do is dig fossils, transport them by road or pipe line or rail.

We are then going to set fire to them, boil water and put that into a turbine, and a generator is going to make electricity you'd think I was mad - but that's what they're all doing out there now.

What we are doing is pumping cold water ashore through a turbine. Hydro has always been the best form of energy - what you need is water on a hill.

That is what we are doing but reversing the system using wave energy. It's cheaper, you are not having to heat the water, there is a huge loss once you have to start heating anything to create energy.

There's one process completely missing, without mentioning having to move the fuel around - so that's two processes. Alright, with nuclear you don't have to move the fuel around, but with us the fuel arrives at your pump free of charge the same as it does with a wind turbine.

HV: Where can we expect to see it in the UK?

AS: It will go everywhere. Ecotricity will certainly be covering the UK, initially they plan to put 200 in-and-around the coast in five years. I personally think we will beat that target as these things are so simple to make, I would actually like to see a factory come up in the southwest where we can make Searasers to sell worldwide.

I'm basing all the designs on floats that can be transported in containers, so this kit can go to anywhere in the world and they just need a set of instructions and a couple of cranes to build the thing.

HV: You've already patented the idea around the world but what kind of interest have you had?

AS: I have people waiting for it all around the world. I regularly get emails saying "when can we come and see it working? We're ready to buy it."

There won't be any problem selling it, believe me. We haven't touched on other things it does - it does dissemination by upping the pressure, it will do fish farming, where we can pump seawater ashore we can produce fish food at a sustainable rate.

We've had people from Amman, where they want to pump seawater ashore to use for irrigation, which they are already doing in desert farming with the cost of pumping water ashore being horrific, there are many things.

I'm 65 so I just can't wait to get this thing started, but we have to go through all this analysis first.

HV: How much has already been invested into the Searaser?

AS: We actually invested as four businessmen, but I started the thing myself originally. We first invested £5,000 then we lifted that to £500,000. That got us to where we were when we went to Ecotricity. They have invested to do the analysis and build the first Searaser at the end of this coming year.

They have bought a large share of the company and signed on the 6th of December - that was my big moment, I had worked hard at it for six years from September 2006 to December 6th 2011 - five years of my life working hard at it. We got there in the end.