Category Archives: wave power

Canada’s James Gosling, the “father of Java,” embraces robotics and ocean science

Had the pleasure this past week to chat with James Gosling, the Canadian who invented the Java programming language. As you’ll read in my Clean Break column below, Gosling has spent the past 10 months working for a small company that makes ocean-scouring robots that are powered by wave energy and the sun. It’s a big change for the computer scientist, who is used to working for big companies such as Sun Microsystems and Google. But I bet it’s a hell of a lot more fun…

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Tyler Hamilton

Calgary-born computer whiz James Gosling is known in the technology world as the “father of Java,” the write once, run anywhere programming language used on billions of mobile phones and Internet servers.

But having spent the past two decades of his life producing Java applications for other people, the 57-year-old computer scientist is now getting a chance to use it himself. After 26 years working at Sun Microsystems and a more recent five-month stint at Google, Gosling decided in August 2011 to leave the world of big IT and dive – literally – into the ocean.

Ten months ago Gosling joined a small company co-headquartered in Silicon Valley and Hawaii called Liquid Robotics, maker of a self-propelled, fully autonomous marine research robot that scours the oceans collecting scientific data with solar-powered sensors.

As Liquid Robotics’ chief software architect, Gosling’s job is to design the back-end systems to best store, manage and visualize what’s expected to become a growing volume of data as more robot drones, called Wave Gliders, are added to the global fleet.

“What could be cooler than robots in the ocean doing science?” Gosling tells me during an interview.

Indeed, they are the first marine robots to use the inexhaustible energy from ocean waves to propel themselves without fuel, meaning zero-carbon mobility.

Each Wave Glider comes in two parts. The first floats on the wavy surface of the water and looks like a surfboard covered in solar panels. It is connected by a six-metre “umbilical” cord to a multi-winged device below called a glider.

The motion of the waves causes the board to bob up and down in the water, movement that is mimicked below by the glider. The wings and fin on the glider are design in such a way that the up and down movement is translated into forward thrust. Navigation can be controlled remotely or pre-programmed into the robot.

“Most people have been trained to try to harness waves for electricity generation, and that turns out to be really, really hard,” Gosling tells me. “But getting thrust? That’s worked out well for us.”

So well that Liquid Robotics broke a Guinness World Record in March when four of its Wave Gliders each travelled roughly 6,000 kilometres across the Pacific Ocean on a meandering journey from the shoreline of San Francisco to Hawaii. The previous record for an unmanned wave-propelled vehicle was 4,630 km.

Two weeks ago the robots embarked on the final stage of their 16,700-km voyage. Departing Hawaii, two will head to Japan and two to Australia. They should get there by early 2013, possibly earlier.

Gosling says people don’t realize how rugged the Wave Gliders are until, as he has, they’re in the water swimming with them. “When you see pictures of them they look deceptively simple, but they can handle amazing weather,” he says.

That includes eight-metre high waves, gale force winds, and powerful ocean currents. The only serious run-in for one Wave Glider was a shark attack. “This shark just went nuts on it,” Gosling says. “He lost a tooth. He was all over this thing, but all he ever did was scratch the paint.”

So what’s the point of this ambitious Pacific expedition? The sensors on the robots will collect and wirelessly transmit an unprecedented amount of detailed information about ocean conditions.

This includes data points on ocean temperature, wave height, weather conditions, water quality and chemistry, and many others that will shed light on the impacts of global climate change and pollution (though any kind of sensor can be attached to suit the mission, be it scientific or commercial).

Liquid Robotics is making the data available to any scientist, educator, and student – even the general public. As part of what it calls the PacX Challenge, it and its sponsors are offering a $50,000 prize to the research proposal that makes best scientific use of the data. The idea is to raise awareness of Wave Glider capabilities and ocean science in general.

Gosling, who considers himself an environmentalist but not the card-carrying type, admits there’s a huge feel-good aspect to working with a company like Liquid Robotics. The oceans are under stress and the climate is a catastrophe happening in slow motion, he says. Raising awareness of and understanding the problem, its impact and how to adapt is crucial.

“Boy, if we had 10,000 of these in the ocean we’d be able to do an immensely better job of predicting the weather. Even if we just had 100 out there in the Atlantic we could really change hurricane predictions,” he says.

“With so much of the earth, we really don’t know what’s going on.”

Using renewable-powered robots to find out more is, in his words, “incurably cool.”

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

Celebrate clean energy innovation: spread the word about Mad Like Tesla

It’s shameless self promotion, I know, but this is how you create awareness of books, and the point of writing Mad Like Tesla was to create awareness of the innovation going on around clean energy and the immense barriers inventors and entrepreneurs face. I also wanted to celebrate those much-needed risk takers in society, without whom we will never have the kind of breakthroughs necessary to tackle our energy demons. It’s part of the reason I write and have maintained this Clean Break blog for the past six years, without financial gain. It’s a labour of love, as time consuming as it often can be.

Mad Like Tesla: Underdog Inventors and Their Relentless Pursuit of Clean Energy was launched this month and has been well-received. The reviews so far have been positive, and awareness of the book is slowly building. But not fast enough. I want to take this moment to ask my readers, many of whom have already purchased the book (thank you!), to help spread the word. Share this link or the Mad Like Tesla website (www.madliketesla.com) on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Refer to it when commenting on the various blogs you might follow. And for my media friends out there — whether in the mainstream press or the blogosphere — please consider a review, or alternatively, I’m happy to chat about the many odd and inspiring stories in this book. Please see press release here.

Thank you all for your ongoing interest and support. BTW: Many have asked, so I’m happy to report that the e-book version of Mad Like Tesla is now available at Amazon.com.

Library Journal review of Mad Like Tesla: “This book’s strong appeal should transcend all borders”

Hi all, I’m delighted to report that the first review of my upcoming book, Mad Like Tesla: Underdog Inventors and Their Relentless Pursuit of Clean Energy, is in and it’s, well, pretty encouraging. Here’s what Library Journal, an important industry trade magazine used as a purchasing guide by library buyer and book wholesalers, had to say:

Hamilton, energy and technology writer for the Toronto Star, examines some of the latest, most far-out green energy innovations and the people behind them. How far-out? Take, for example, a retired engineer’s idea to produce electricity via an artificial tornado, or a plan for a space-based power station that would harvest the sun’s energy, using microwaves to beam it down to earth. Other gizmos and processes seem more amenable to commercial success and social acceptance: Hamilton tells of a secretive company called EEStor that claims to have made a breakthrough in energy storage, and of a team building a low-cost nuclear fusion reactor. He strikes a fine balance between hope and hard realism when considering barriers to energy transition. As the “tornado guy” says, upon considering financial and regulatory obstacles: “Holy crap, that’s a lot to get through.” VERDICT: Mad Like Tesla is easy to get through, even for readers with only a basic knowledge of energy issues. Hamilton makes complex technologies comprehensible, and he clearly enjoys the remarkable human stories behind the science. Many of the risk takers and visionaries portrayed are Canadian (rocker Neil Young makes a cameo appearance!), but this book’s strong appeal should transcend all borders.

Can’t complain with that. The book is scheduled for public release on Sept. 1 and is already available for pre-order on a number of sites, including Amazon.com/Amazon.ca and Indigo.ca. The book won’t break the bank, either. We decided to do paperback release on first run to make the book more accessible to a larger audience. You can likely pick it up for $13 or so. I built a Web site I’m not entirely happy with, so plan to have a newly designed site finished by the end of August. Stay tuned!

It’s getting crowded on this third, and increasingly warmer, rock from the sun… What to do?

It’s getting crowded on this rock.

The United Nations, which tracks world population growth, has upped its estimates. We know that we’ll pass the seven billion mark sometime this October, but the U.N. is now saying we could hit 10 billion within the century – nearly a billion more than expected. Actually, by 2050 we will likely hit 9.3 billion. For some perspective, the planet held five billion people back when Johnny Depp was just starting his career on the TV show 21 Jump Street (Yes, I admit, I was a huge fan of that show). That was the mid-1980s – not so long ago, is it?

Ten billion people are a lot of mouths to feed, bodies to hydrate and families to shelter. It translates into more vehicles on roads, more gigawatts of electricity demand, and more land needed for growing crops. And dramatically more garbage and pollution. It will become much more difficult for supply to meet this demand. Commodity prices will continue to rise, as they have been. Fresh water resources will become more scarce. Regional conflicts will grow. Greenhouse gas emissions will rise. This isn’t scaremongering, this is reality. Even climate skeptics must appreciate that the current path is unsustainable. Global warming isn’t the only reason to be concerned.

Now, reducing waste, eliminating inefficiency and doing things in a more intelligence way will help, but ultimately dealing with the planet’s population explosion will also require a complete rethinking of where we get energy and how we use it. We can’t simply “shoe-horn” renewables into an existing fossil-fuel infrastructure, at least not in the long term. We need to imagine an infrastructure that puts renewables and low-emission energy sources first, and then begin the difficult task of making the transition. Many barriers (entrenched interests, risk aversion, lack of political leadership and citizen buy-in) will need to be overcome, but what’s the alternative?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a short preview of an upcoming report today that asserts we can make the transition. It concludes that nearly 80 per cent of the world’s energy supply could by 2050 be met through deployment of renewable energy technologies — particularly those that capture solar energy. Now, it’s a highly optimistic scenario, but it’s what we need to help keep GHG emissions below 450 parts per million and keep the global temperature from rising beyond 2 degrees C.

Are we too intimidated by the daunting task ahead? Perhaps that’s part of the problem. The IPCC spends many years putting together a massive and comprehensive report on the climate and then plunks it down for all the world to see. It’s information overload — simply too much to digest in one sitting — and it gives the impression that we have a problem that’s too big to tackle. The IPCC’s Fourth Assessment was roughly 3,000 pages! The Fifth Assessment, currently in the works, will be an equally large tome filled with depressing conclusions and broad calls for action that no countries appear ready to embrace.

I agree with folks like Andrew Weaver from the University of Victoria, who is perhaps Canada’s top climate scientist. He says we need to start targeting the science and dividing the problem into smaller, more manageable chunks. ”The science behind the problem is so utterly solid is that what we need to do is start carving pieces off and dealing with those,” Weaver recently told me. Continue reading It’s getting crowded on this third, and increasingly warmer, rock from the sun… What to do?

SDTC: “We want to keep this rolling. It is important we maintain momentum.”

Those of you who frequent this blog know that I mention Sustainable Development Technology Canada quite regularly (picture to the left is of SDTC chief Vicky Sharpe). That’s because the federal agency, which was created nine years ago, has introduced me over the years to so many interesting, innovative and ambitious clean technology companies. SDTC does the screening. It carries out the due diligence. It offers funding for demonstration projects. It forces the hand of private investors that might not otherwise open their doors or pockets. It offers guidance. Introduces partners and customers. Need I say more? This agency has given dozens of promising green technologies and the companies behind them a solid chance of success. For every dollar of public money it has invested, it has tapped into twice as much (actually more) from the private sector. Over the past few years, that has translated into $515 million in public funding being leveraged to attract about $1.2 billion in mostly private funds.

That’s why in my Clean Break column this week I argue clean technology, and specifically the efforts of SDTC, need to be part of the country’s election dialogue. We need to build on the progress SDTC has achieved to date, not abandon the momentum at a time when major world economies — Germany, China, India, Brazil, the United States — are racing to establish a dominant position in the emerging global green economy.

The leaders of the political parties looking to run the next government need to be asked: How are they prepared to support clean technology innovation and green economic development in Canada?