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OPINION: How a Cordova boat mechanic-turned-inventor won $1.5M

July 14th | Charles Wohlforth Print this article   Email this article  

The know-how Alex Hagmuller learned repairing fishing boats in Cordova helped him invent a wave energy electric generator that won a $1.5 million prize.

Hagmuller built a buoy with his former college roommate Max Ginsburg that harvests electrical power from ocean waves. Last fall, the invention from their garage beat 92 other entrants for the U.S. Energy Department's Wave Energy Prize at finals held at a wave tank in Maryland.

Now the men are almost ready to quit their day jobs — Hagmuller works for an Oregon company that makes jet engine parts — as they negotiate a $5 million round of funding to build a bigger version of the device through their startup, AquaHarmonics.

Hagmuller said it started on the Alaska waterfront.

"Good fishermen can make anything work for a day. There's a lot of ingenuity that happens in a small town where your livelihood depends on making something work," he said. "That's why we're two guys in a garage who are able to pull this off."

But Hagmuller's story is also a parable of genius nearly squandered, as Alaska's lack of educational opportunities almost left him in Cordova with a career as a diesel mechanic.

Hagmuller was born in Cordova, a Prince William Sound salmon fishing port, the child of German immigrants who worked as a truck driver and a bookkeeper. He began fixing engines with his first motorcycle, when he was 13. He bought equipment with money he made fishing.

He got tired of school.

"My algebra teacher in high school told me that's the farthest I'd ever go in math," he said. Physics, which is essential for engineering, wasn't offered in Cordova.

Hagmuller didn't bother to take college entrance tests. He quit diesel mechanic school after a semester because he already knew what they were teaching.

Instead, he freelanced as a mechanic, building skills and a reputation. He worked on Subarus and on diesel engines, fabricated fiberglass and aluminum boats, and learned what he could from the best mechanics in Cordova.

One summer, a girl he had met in high school came home from college and explained what he was missing. (She became his wife, Rebecca.)

"I got to the point where I saw the limitation there," Hagmuller said. "What would it take to be the person developing this technology and making it better rather than just fixing it?"

The road back to school was difficult. Hagmuller's poor preparation in math made studying calculus a daunting struggle at schools in Juneau and Bellingham, Washington. But he eventually got into an engineering program at Oregon State University and was lucky enough to draw Ginsburg as a roommate.

Hagmuller relied on Ginsburg, five years younger, to bring his math up to the level he needed to become an engineer. He said Ginsburg was talented in math and had been well trained in high school.

When they started tinkering with wave energy, years later, Ginsburg's math talent proved critical. The great idea behind their invention relies on a lot of mathematics.

Ocean waves carry enormous power, but devices to harvest the energy as electricity have proved complex and unreliable. Waves come in different sizes, periods and directions; sea water is highly corrosive; and the forces involved can be huge.

Hagmuller and Ginsburg's buoy produces electricity with a generator attached to a drum that turns as it spools out its mooring line, a simple and obvious idea. It beat other devices with a new way of reeling the line back in when the buoy is dropping into the trough of the next wave.

A controller in the buoy turns the generator into a motor, pulling the buoy downward. By adjusting that motion, the controller tunes the buoy's resonant frequency to match the wave, maximizing the energy harvested and minimizing the forces on the equipment.

Hagmuller and Ginsburg built the device and wrote the computer code allowing the buoy to tune itself to the waves. They worked in Hagmuller's garage, spending as little money as possible. They designed and built their own circuit boards rather than buying them.

Parts for an early version of the buoy were scavenged from a Roomba vacuum cleaner.

"The Roomba had a gear box that I needed, and it had a brush DC motor," Hagmuller said.

In the water, the tiny first version of the device worked, blinking an LED.

For the Department of Energy contest, teams moved through a series of technology gates, showing their promise at each step as competitors were eliminated. Under the rules of the prize, the winner would have to double the electrical output from a wave energy device.

That's a big goal. But the AquaHarmonics device increased output to almost triple. And its simple design is uniquely durable and potentially easy to scale up and deploy.

But to do that, Hagmuller and Ginsburg will need bigger budgets.

They received $125,000 in development money during the contest and were presented with an oversized $1.5 million check at the award ceremony. But Hagmuller said that money isn't enough for them to work full time on the project.

Half of the prize will go to taxes. The rest will buy equipment they need and cover other expenses.

Hagmuller said this technology isn't ready for private investment. It could be 10 years before it produces power commercially. Venture capital investors want returns quicker than that.

But if a $5 million contract with the Energy Department comes through, that will be enough to build a larger buoy and to begin thinking about commercializing it, either with a single large device or an array of small buoys.

The first application could be in remote areas with high power costs.

"Coastal villages in Alaska, for instance," Hagmuller said.

Alaska has plenty of waves. And plenty of bright young minds we are not making enough use of. We should invest in education to make the most of the next Alex Hagmuller.

 


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