Cheap wave power hopes pinned on infant technology

By Tom Ashby

LONDON, Feb 15 (Reuter) - A common plastic could provide the key to tapping the sea's huge energy potential, says a U.S. firm which is developing a radically new wave power system.

Ocean Power Technologies Inc (OPT) has developed a way to use the piezoelectric polymer -- a plastic commonly found in quartz watches and microphones -- to produce electricity when stretched.

But it is still in its infancy and wave power experts doubt whether OPT's system can achieve its optimistic cost forecasts. "It's a very new concept. It's a feasible technology but it's a matter of cost at the end of the day," said Tony Lewis at Ireland's University of Cork who also advises the European Commission on wave power.

OPT announced a deal on Tuesday to build a prototype with Japan's Penta-Ocean Construction Company Ltd, thrusting the technology to the forefront of wave power hopes.

"Hydropiezoelectric" power is a radical departure from traditional wave power systems which use the rising and falling action of the sea to move a float up and down a chamber, or to push air through a turbine.

Its polymer strip is strapped between the sea bed and a float on the surface and stretched by the power of waves, producing electricity which is sent back to a transforming station on the coast.

"Previous attempts to harness the power of the sea have involved turbines and complex mechanical parts which corrode," said George Taylor, OPT's president.

Penta-Ocean, a huge engineering and construction company has contributed an undisclosed sum to fund the construction of OPT's 1 kilowatt (kW) prototype in the Gulf of Mexico.

In return, OPT has given Penta-Ocean exclusive rights to market its product in Japan. "This is an opportunity to establish our revolutionary technology in a key market," said Taylor.

OPT holds exclusive rights to use the piezoelectric polymer which is manufactured by AMP Inc, a large U.S. manufacturer of electrical connectors with a minority equity stake in OPT.

If its claims to novelty are well-founded, OPT's cost forecasts have come under question by wave power experts.

Taylor says a large 100mW generator could produce electricity at one to three cents per kW hour.

This compares with about five cents for electricity produced from state-of-the-art combined cycle gas plants and eight or more cents for oil-fired stations.

"It seems an incredibly low figure. Even the most favourable cost estimate from current wave power technology is five to eight cents per kWh. When an early proposal has such low figures, one tends to be sceptical," said Lewis of the University of Cork.

Wave power has become an increasingly popular area of research since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit identified reducing carbon dioxide emissions as central in the fight against "global warming."

Taylor sees other advantages. "Because it's modular, you can build it up over time without any huge investments."

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