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Customized Tidal Power Conversion Devices

Brown University
ARPA-E Award: 
Providence, RI
Project Term: 
03/20/2013 to 05/31/2017
Project Status: 
Technical Categories: 
Critical Need: 

Renewable energy is critical to our environmental, economic, and national security. Demand for energy is on the rise, as is our national reliance on fossil fuel-based power plants for the bulk of our electricity generation. There is a drastic need for safe, clean, and cost-effective alternatives to coal, such as wind, solar, hydroelectric, and geothermal power. These technologies would reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and help position the U.S. as a leader in the global renewable energy industry.

Project Innovation + Advantages: 

Brown University is developing a power conversion device to maximize power production and reduce costs to capture energy from flowing water in rivers and tidal basins. Conventional methods to harness energy from these water resources face a number of challenges, including the costs associated with developing customized turbine technology to a specific site. Additionally, sites with sufficient energy exist near coastal habitats which depend on the natural water flow to transport nutrients. Brown University's tidal power conversion devices can continuously customize themselves by using an onboard computer and control software to respond to real-time measurements, which will increase tidal power conversion efficiency. Brown University's technology will allow for inexpensive installation and software upgrades and optimized layout of tidal power generators to maximize power generation and mitigate environmental impacts.

Potential Impact: 

If successful, Brown University's tidal power conversion device would reduce the costs of producing electricity from flowing water and reduce harmful emissions associated with energy production because there are no emissions associated with tidal power conversion.


Increased availability of renewable power would help diversify the U.S. energy portfolio, allowing homeowners and businesses access to a grid that is less dependent on any one source of power.


Providing clean electricity would significantly reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with electricity generation. Presently, over 40% of U.S. CO2 emissions come from electricity generation.


Enabling alternative sources of energy like wind and solar can help stabilize and reduce the price of energy. This could result in significant cost savings over fossil fuels in the years to come.

Innovation Update: 
(As of March 2017) 
The Brown team has developed a hydrofoil technology to harvest kinetic energy in a marine environment. The team’s leading edge hydrofoil design has many advantages over traditional rotary turbine designs, and market analysis indicates such a system should be initially deployed in remote, off-grid markets, like those in Alaska and Maine. These regions currently rely on shipped-in diesel fuel with energy costs exceeding $0.50/kWh, whereas the estimated levelized cost of energy for hydrokinetic energy using the Brown team’s design is about $0.37/kWh at the 50kW scale—disruptive to this first market. The next likely application is as a component of the microgrid, complementing diesel power and other non-baseload renewables like solar and wind. The team has collaborated with BluSource Energy and is exploring the next step to secure investor funding, which is to design, build, and test a 10kW prototype for one year, a standard milestone that potential investors require.
The Brown team approached their technology development based on an oscillating hydrofoil design. Using lab experiments and computational fluid dynamics (CFD) analysis to optimize and validate the design, the team developed a 1kW device with a mechanically coupled pair of wings driven by flowing water to heave vertically and pitch at the center axis. This leading edge vortex persists over the top of the foil during the upstroke of the current, increasing the lift force with its low pressure core for a large portion of the stroke. When the foil reverses at the top of the stroke, the vortex sheds and another is formed on the lower side of the design. A real-time controller monitors the position and forces on the wing and adjusts the load to maximize power output at a given flow speed. In addition to maximizing design efficiency, partners Wellesley College and the Volpe Center have tested the technology for a wide range of environmental considerations. After field-testing for factors such as interference with animal movement or migration, alteration of currents and waves, sediment transport, and a multitude of other factors, the team determined that the hydrofoil design has low-risk environmental impacts.
For a detailed assessment of the Brown University project and impact, please click here.

ARPA-E Program Director: 
Dr. Christopher Atkinson
Project Contact: 
Prof. Shreyas Mandre
Volpe National Transportation Systems Center
Release Date: