Inventor with Cordova ties competes for $1.5 million grand prize

AquaHarmonics wave energy invention makes it to final round in U.S. Dept. of Energy competition; device may help the United States reach renewable energy goals

Working out of a tiny garage in Portland, Oregon, engineers Alex Hagmüller and his partner Max Ginsburg might change the future of renewable energy.

Hagmüller and Ginsburg make up team AquaHarmonics and they’re in the final round of competition in the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s Wave Energy Competition. The grand prize is $1.5 million.

The contest, which began in April, 2015, intends to reduce the cost of electricity produced by current wave energy converters.

The event was started as a public prize to drive radical innovation in wave energy. The goal is to cut the cost of current wave energy devices in half, Hagmüller said.

The two men have created a device prototype that they believe will do that.

“The device will potentially benefit the public by providing a low cost form of renewable energy,” Hagmüller said, “As well as help the United States reach its renewable energy goals. If we do well in the competition, we’ll use the prize money to further development with a larger scale prototype and testing in the ocean, with the device connected to the local grid.”

Hagmüller said he started working on wave energy technology and prototypes as early as 2011.

“The development started at the hobby level with at least five different prototypes,” Hagmüller said. “At some point the realization hit that data acquisition and a control system would be required for the device to work properly. That is when Max Ginsburg came into the picture – as a friend and electrical engineer interested in the technology.”

The final device architecture is a result of research and development through these prototypes, as well as research in the current field of wave energy devices.

Born and raised in Cordova, Hagmüller is the son of Wolfgang and Elke Hagmüller, of Cordova. Hagmüller’s partner Ginsburg grew up in Eugene, Oregon.

“In 2005, we both were accepted to Oregon State University’s engineering program,” Hagmüller said. “Max for electrical engineering and myself for mechanical engineering. We were appointed as roommates by the university’s selection system and have been friends ever since. Since we both work full time jobs, we’ve been working on this project through all sorts of odd hours and weekends.”

The conceptualization, design and testing have been anything but simple. During the testing phase of one prototype built four years ago, the men nearly lost their newest wave invention to the waves, quite literally.

“In 2012, we had a prototype for our device built,” Hagmüller said. “Max was working as an electrical engineer on submarines for the Navy at Pearl Harbor and I was working as an engineer on the Port Mann Bridge Project in Vancouver, British Columbia. We met up on the coast for the Fourth of July weekend to test the device in the ocean.”

The men donned wetsuits onshore and proceeded to walk the device out into the ocean.

“We got strange looks from people and many questions were asked,” Hagmüller recollected. “We looked pretty silly. Ultimately we were able to anchor the device and monitor it in the waves, and see it actually making power. (This) was indicated to us by an LED light on an aluminum mast of the device. We realized it made power, but it seemed like it left a lot to be desired as far as logistics were concerned if it were to be scaled up. We watched it for a while. Then the mooring line broke.”

Ginsburg and Hagmüller had to chase their device down the shoreline and said they ended up swimming among sea lions to save it.

“It was a scary moment,” Hagmüller said. “We got what we needed from the test. We scrapped that device, which was made mainly from an old Roomba vacuum cleaner, a five-gallon bucket and some PVC pipe, and we started over!”

Initially going up against 91 other competitors more than a year ago, Team AquaHarmonics is in the final round as one of nine teams who will compete at the U.S. Navy’s Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Maneuvering and Seakeeping Basin in Bethesda, Maryland, Aug. 29 through Sept. 2.

“The intention of our device is to ultimately provide competitively priced, renewable power,” Hagmüller said. “That works in harmony with current renewable energies to improve capacity factor or ‘on-time.’ Wave energy has the potential to provide nearly double the kilowatt hours that wind can provide due to the consistency of ocean waves over wind.”

Initially, the AquaHarmonics partners funded the project themselves. The nine finalist teams are allotted up to $125,000 each by the Dept. of Energy to design, build and test a 1/20th scale prototype device.

“Winning the competition would be fantastic,” he said, “But testing at Carderock – in our minds, is the real prize. It will give us an incredible amount of valuable data as to how our device operates.”

Rob Brown, of Saddle Point Machine in Cordova, made nearly all the machined parts for the device, said Rebecca Brown Hagmüller, Alex’s wife.

“We’re really excited to complete our final test at the Navy’s Carderock test facility in Bethesda, Maryland,” he said.

For more information on wave energy, visit http://waveenergyprize.org online. You can also follow Team AquaHarmonics’ progress on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/aquaharmonics.

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Cinthia Gibbens-Stimson is a staff writer and photographer for The Cordova Times. She has been writing in one form or another for 30-plus years and has had a longstanding relationship with The Cordova Times starting in 1989. She's been an Alaskan since 1976 and first moved to Cordova in 1978. She's lived in various West Texas towns; in Denver, Colorado; in McGrath, Cordova, Galena, Kodiak, Wasilla, Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska and in Bangalore, India. She has two children and three grandchildren. She can be reached at cgibbens-stimson@thecordovatimes.com or follow her on Instagram @alaskatoindia.