This article was contributed by Henry Hawthorne, Youth Program Coordinator, UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
While students at most universities are winding down their spring semesters, a cohort consisting of engineering students from North Carolina A&T State University and entrepreneurship students at UNCW’s Cameron School of Business are working hard to prepare a product to enter in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Marine Energy Collegiate Competition, which features seventeen teams from universities from all over the world.
The task is simple—design a functional product that promotes economic growth in the “Blue Economy.” Government institutions like the World Bank use this name in reference to the usage of oceans and coastlines to promote economic growth while prioritizing sustainability and symbiosis with the ocean environment.
2022 will be the second year that NC A&T and UNCW have formed a team to enter the competition. During this two-year stint, their efforts have been funded by NC IDEA, a 501(c)(3) non-profit that seeks to develop and strengthen North Carolina’s economy. In order to develop successful businesses, NC IDEA believes in building teams and strong ideas with a diversity of background, experience, and thought. The NC A&T and UNCW cohort directly reflects this, believing that their strength lies in strategic usage of their multidisciplinary backgrounds.
For this year’s entry, the NC A&T students, led by Dr. Michael Atkinson, started from scratch in the fall semester to design a renewable power source that harnesses the power of the ocean itself. They determined that they could use different temperatures of ocean water to motivate a turbine, creating electricity. The process starts by retrieving water from both a warm source near the surface, and a cold deep-water source. The surface water is passed through a series of tubes that are heated directly by sunlight. Once this water is hot enough, it is used to boil a liquid, like ammonia or refrigerant, that has a low boiling point. The refrigerant, now a hot steam, is pushed through a turbine which creates electricity. Once the steam passes through the turbine, the cold water from the deeper ocean source is used to cool the refrigerant back to a liquid, so it can continue to move through the cycle. The engine is entirely self-sufficient, using only a percentage of the power it creates to run itself, and does not rely on any outside resources beyond ocean water itself, making it incredibly low-maintenance.
With plenty of testing and simulation to complete to keep themselves busy, the UNCW team, led by Dr. Vince Howe, has helped to find and target the right market for the product. Throughout the spring semester, the UNCW team met with local business leaders in the marine industries to test and hone their ideas, spanning from local oyster farmers to representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This process culminated in the NC A&T team taking a trip to Wilmington, where the full team met with local experts and professors in marine aquaculture at UNCW’s Center for Marine Science, Research Oyster Hatchery, and Finfish Aquaculture facility, as well as the Port of Wilmington. There, the team decided to target their product towards marine fish farms. While the engine’s price and sustainability are immediate selling points, the cohort also believes that their self-sustaining renewable aspects of the engine can help marine aquaculture move beyond a reliance on the traditional power grid, and expand to more remote locations like deeper water off the coast.
The past several months of designing, building, and honing their ideas, the Marine Energy Collegiate Competition cohort will conclude their work by presenting their business plan and prototype at the Department of Energy’s Water Power Week on May 25th. While many of the students will move on to careers in engineering or business afterwards, the project will leave the students with connections, support, and funding from NC IDEA, the UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE), and their respective universities, to continue to pursue their idea after graduation.
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