Radio Cade

How Oceanic Waves Become Heroes

September 02, 2020 Mark Supal Season 1 Episode 93
Radio Cade
How Oceanic Waves Become Heroes
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Radio Cade
How Oceanic Waves Become Heroes
Sep 02, 2020 Season 1 Episode 93
Mark Supal

Millions of people each year face natural coastal disasters, leaving them without water, and electric power.  A Wave Energy Converter named Platypus, using only oceanic wave motion can continuously generate enough electrical charge to operate a seawater desalinator that turns saltwater into clean drinking water, or it can provide sufficient power for heating, lighting, or other electrical items needed in emergency situations.

Show Notes Transcript

Millions of people each year face natural coastal disasters, leaving them without water, and electric power.  A Wave Energy Converter named Platypus, using only oceanic wave motion can continuously generate enough electrical charge to operate a seawater desalinator that turns saltwater into clean drinking water, or it can provide sufficient power for heating, lighting, or other electrical items needed in emergency situations.

Intro:

Inventors and their inventions. Welcome to Radio Cade the podcast from the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention in Gainesville, Florida. The museum is named after James Robert Cade , who invented Gatorade in 1965. My name is Richard Miles. We'll introduce you to inventors and the things that motivate them, we'll learn about their personal stories, how their inventions work and how their ideas get from the laboratory to the marketplace.

James Di Virgilio:

Welcome to Radio Cade. I'm your host James Di Virgilio. Today we'll be visiting with one of our Cade Prize inventors. He's working on something very, very interesting. In fact, he's created many different things I like to welcome to the show Mark Supal, chief technology officer at Engineering Technologies, LLC founded in January of 2019. Mark you're working on something that, to my knowledge, hasn't been done before. Very interesting concept. Tell us about it.

Mark Supal:

Thank you for the introduction. What the product is, it's called Platypus and we named it Platypus because it has two arms that bounce up and down, kind of like a tail and a bill on a Platypus. And it bounces in ocean waves. Turns generators to produce electricity and the electricity can either be stored in batteries, right at the machine and use there, or it can be routed to the shore via a marine cable. And again, it's for producing and harvesting ocean energy.

James Di Virgilio:

So is anyone working on or has anyone worked on anything like this before using the ocean waves to produce usable energy?

Mark Supal:

Many universities and big companies have tried to produce machines that generate megawatts of electrical energy. They're very expensive and they haven't necessarily been successful to sell electricity at a cost that makes sense, or is comparable to like wind or solar energy. What makes this product unique is that it's very small in size. It was designed to be shipped and airdropped into emergency regions that suffer from coastal disasters, like the strike we recently had from hurricane Laura , where people might need water. And to produce this water, you need low scale power. So this machine produces the order of 50 Watts, which can power a decelerator to produce fresh drinking water, but what's interesting is upon investigation. We found many companies that need things other than to sell a nation of water. They need to power all sorts of scientific buoys in the ocean.

James Di Virgilio:

So if I'm needing to power of buoy , I grabbed this Platypus. I drop it somewhere out in the ocean. I'm assuming it runs on solar power. And then it gives me an injunction with wave power. Is it just wave power? Tell me how I'm getting energy. And then how am I using the energy?

Mark Supal:

No, it uses strictly the ocean energy. So the waves bounce up and down. And the movement of the wave rotates a generator, which produces the electricity and it's stored in the batteries are used directly at the buoy. So the Platypus can be tethered to the buoy, right to the buoy via cable, which within say five or six feet away. The other implementation of this Platypus is to actually incorporate it onto buoys. So I'm currently working with NOAA, which is our National Oceanic, Atmospheric Administration and a national data buoy center to come up with a plan to either incorporate the Platypus as part of the buoy or incorporate the Platypus underneath the buoy or to tether the Platypus to the buoy, to get the electricity from the Platyous, to the buoy, to drive all their equipment and all sorts of weather equipment and mapping equipment and other emergency equipment on the buoys that they use to monitor everything from again, weather to oil spills.

James Di Virgilio:

Okay. So this is like a power plant. As you mentioned, and previously solar power was something that was used out in the oceans. It could be used. I'm assuming at a decent level. I've seen these things before.

Mark Supal:

Yes.

James Di Virgilio:

But your solution would essentially never fail, right? Because the ocean is always in motion . So if it's working correctly, it's generating continuous power.

Mark Supal:

Yeah. So here's what we found out. Currently solar power is being used. There were problems with solar power and believe it or not birds like to perch on solar panels. And when birds sit there, they, they drop their debris onto their panels and the panels get cluttered with the bird droppings. And it's very expensive then to send a ship out there at $30,000 a day to wipe the solar panel clean that's one issue, which was unusual, fine . And this is all this information came out of a whole interview process that I conducted from various people who use buoys. So you've got this avian falling . You also have low light conditions, anything above or below the 50th parallels is the sunlight is not intense enough to necessarily power buoys. So it becomes expensive to put many solar panels on buoys. You have to lay out a lot of redundant panels and it takes up a lot of valuable real estate on the buoy itself. Okay. Those were the two main concerns, the avian falling and substitute for low light conditions and the big market value for the Platypus is that it operates at nighttime in the dark. So you have buoys up in Alaska and certain times of the years, there is no light. So people are scrambling trying to figure out how to power buoys with an alternative to solar panels. But right now people are still using solar panels.

James Di Virgilio:

Interesting. So then you are the world's first I presume of this type to generate power via this method for a buoy.

Mark Supal:

We're the first to get to a product that's commercially available that can be shipped very simply of the size of your arm span , say about six feet across and can be folded up into a box to be taken out to the ocean, to be used either with scientific equipment or to be used, perhaps even a sailor who wants to throw this thing over his vessel in order to produce fresh drinking water in the case that he's marooned at sea.

James Di Virgilio:

All right . So we here at the Cade we love ideas. The Cade Prize obviously is honoring creative problem solving. It's clearly evident that this is a very creative solution to a problem that most people were not even aware that we had. I'm hearing you mention things like you conducted interviews to learn what was going on, what needed to be done. But before the interviews, how did this idea even come about? How were you aware that there was a need for this?

Mark Supal:

This came out, really went out by the NRL, our National, Renewable Energy Laboratory. They have a contest for companies to produce again, fresh drinking water. After these coastal disasters, power outages, diesel generators become hazardous to airdrop fuels might not be available or difficult to get to. So the whole idea came out of a challenge that said, Hey, we need somebody to figure out how to create fresh drinking water. They left it up to companies to figure out how to do this. My thought was, well, if I'm going to be creating fresh drinking water, why not just create electricity because you can always already buy a commercially available desalinater, which is electrically powered. So if I can produce electricity, not only can I produce desalinated water, but I can power all sorts of emergency equipment, everything from radios to warming blankets, to emergency LED lighting and so forth and so on. So that was my plan. And that was the approach I took to go beyond desalination and just produce electricity, which can power, whatever the need may be.

James Di Virgilio:

Now, how would you power? I'm imagining I'm living in a coastal home. My power goes out. How would I use the Platypus to power items? You just mentioned in my home or radio.

Mark Supal:

This thing sits within two to 300 yards of the shore. And there's a marine cable that unrolls toward the shore. And you can either use the DC power directly, the 12 volt DC power that it supplies, or you can convert or all sorts of DC, AC converters. That would power. Again, this is all small scale, power, 50 Watts. This is not going to power your house. This is a very unique product. It's not designed to produce again, kilowatts or megawatts 50 Watts. This is for emergency type equipment, whether it be a desalinator or lighting, if you had to power led lighting at your home, that could happen. But as far as powering something like your air conditioning system, which draws maybe kilowatts, you're not going to get that to happen.

James Di Virgilio:

So if I'm using this on a coastal home, and I know where the market is, where we're going to go with the market, but is there a possible residential use for this? And let's just stick with LED lighting, right? A storm hits we're out of power for weeks. It'd be great to have some sort of lighting at night. That's not candle light or a flashlight. How would this work though? How many Platypuses do we need to power a neighborhood's worth of led lighting on the coast?

Mark Supal:

Right, Right. Well, this one is 50 Watts. This was meant again, to satisfy this need to power this desalinater. And our approach is to develop this thing into a larger Platypus that would produce something, unheard of say, a thousand Watts, or maybe even 2000 Watts, which you could use to power, maybe your home or part of our home or part of our community. So our approach is more incremental. Let's solve this problem first at a very small scale, a 50 watt scale, and then step up to many companies have launched very expensive projects, trying to right on the onset, produce megawatts or kilowatts. And we're saying, Hey, it's a very difficult problem, obviously, to deal with the very harsh ocean environment. So we're starting very small, figuring out all the different problems we're going to run into in order to even produce something as little as 50 Watts and then go from there. So it would basically sit in the water, just like a turbine. A wind turbine sits into water. Many turbines already exist off the coast of like Lake Erie for instance. And they have cabling that runs on the ocean floor to a station and then to your home.

James Di Virgilio:

So who is the market for this who owns most of these buoys? Who are you trying to say, Hey, this is a need. We can fix this. We can solve your problem .

Mark Supal:

NOAA is the big outlet that we're currently working with. They have a branch, which is then the National Data Buoy Center, which has over 300 boys just around the coast of the US. So this is the market that was uncovered after many interviews, which shocked me. And they're looking for, believe it or not, for as little as 10 Watts, which seems ridiculous. 10 Watts is not a lot of power, but they have no way to power these buoys in this darkness. So they're all over this idea. We've been meeting with them, trying to figure out those things you talk about. Well, how do you interface this thing with this existing buoy? Is it a tether? Is it a part of the buoy? Those are the things we're currently working on.

James Di Virgilio:

If you're able to find a way to make this stay. I imagine if you tether it, there's a risk the tether breaks, right? If you make it a part of the buoy, it's probably the best way to go. Of course, it could still break down. You have to service it, but I'm imagining you're already improving significantly what they have. In fact, with hurricane Laura , I was reading just yesterday that when it came to storm surge and this shocked me, I'm like, how do we not know what the storm surge was? I know we have buoys out there. I live in Florida. There's buoys all over the place. How is a buoy not actively monitoring where the storm surge is. And essentially there's not very many buoys that are capable of reporting real time data. It sounds like with your solution, you would actually be able to provide real time data all over the place. I could imagine a buoy defense wall, so to speak. That's giving forecasters a warning because you could have your Platypus is out in the Gulf of Mexico, out in the Atlantic Ocean out wherever. And it's telling you at each grid mark. Hey, this storm surge is growing. Hey, this is where it's worse. That would be actionable evidence to then more localize the forecast, right?

Mark Supal:

Absolutely. And even beyond forecasting, which will be a growing problem as climate changes. So we know that the number of buoys is going increase in the ocean. So that's fact, but do we also know that power at sea is going to be something we need in the future. Right now, we already see electric vehicles and people are producing electric boats. So you can imagine a Platypus, so to speak gas station on electric station though, where you pull up recharge your jet ski or your electric boat and move on, or you can even imagine the stations for the whole group of people like the military and the scientific community who uses these underwater gliders, which stay under the ocean in stealthy missions , which don't want to surface because they get detected. So we are imagining this Platypus as having underwater charging ports, whereby these gliders can pull up, fill up electrically, fill up and then go about their mission. So believe it or not the market for power at sea. It is tremendous.

James Di Virgilio:

I'm imagining James Bond. He uses an underwater device, I think in a couple of films that are like that. But what's interesting. Mark is you're talking about solving a problem, and obviously we've spoke with countless inventors on this very podcast, and that's how it always starts solve one problem. And then you ask yourself, is your solution scalable? I think obviously you've proven that your solution is eminently scalable and to a far distant future, depending on how things go and where we go, but harnessing the power of the ocean certainly seems like a brilliant idea. Now, having a brilliant idea and getting your idea funded are two different things. How have you been able to fund so far the Platypus? How have you built prototypes? What have you been able to do to actually make this idea a reality?

Mark Supal:

Well, so I happen to be very handy and my parents were blue collar, but my dad was a plumber. So I'm very familiar with assembly and using pipes . So the way this product is made, out of a PVC pipe and it comes in all sorts of diameters. So I started with one inch pipe and the motors you can buy come in all sorts of diameters and you can scale a product up or down quite easily. And it all fits together within a shell of PVC pipe. So the funding actually came from me, my personal funds. And we're talking about very small units units that are producing on an order of say 10 Watts of power. So to build one of these things may be unordered five, $600, but I'm able to buy all the parts. I'm not custom manufacturing, any parts, everything I'm buying is off the shelf, pieces of pipe are being glued together and believe it or not today, you can find almost any component you might need, whether it be a special sized fitting, or whether it be a certain board to take some unusual wave form and converted into DC electricity. So it's not all that difficult to fund of course, to go to this next step. I'm looking for funding. And this is where the Cade Prize came along. They're offering a wonderful chance for companies who are inventing new products to fund their ideas.

James Di Virgilio:

And that's a great pitch because that leads right into my next question. But it also talks about organizations like the Cade , right? Who support innovation, new venture capital. Basically you need money to fund ideas, right? You have an idea. Your idea is good. And now if I drop an order for 300 of these onto your lap, you have to find a way to make those right. You have to raise the money to construct them. And a lot of times that's lost. I think in the idea generation process amongst the listening public is how do you actually make one of these? And then here you are going around. I imagine that you're applying to a variety of different innovative awards, and you use this grant money or this money, one in prize money to then create either more prototypes or to build more product for you. How far away do you think you are from actually having this be in the water as a usable purchasable product on a large enough scale where there's a couple of hundred of these in the ocean.

Mark Supal:

I would say about a year and a half, not only are your client to the Cade Prize, but also we're writing a proposal through the National Science Foundation. They offer startup companies a chance to do research in science and produce products. So there are a number of other avenues that we're following to fund our products, but to do this again, because it is such a harsh environment we are using specialized materials, stainless steels, Naval brass, and so forth. But obviously when you get something out there , there are going to be failures and you're going to have to correct and build a product that's reliable. So I don't see this product being released for about another year and a half. We are currently talking to and trying to strategize with NOAA to get one of these things on one of their buoys , either on or tethered to one of their buoys is say the next year. So , uh, even at that, you got to remember what that harsh environment you're dealing with. There are going to be all sorts of issues that crop up. This thing has moving parts. You have Marine life. That's going to grow on these parts. You have weather conditions that may distort the parts. You have boats that may collide with this thing as it is. When you talk to people who just buoys out there and the ocean, there are all sorts of issues with everything from boats, collided with the buoys to vandalism.

James Di Virgilio:

It's a lot of wisdom there. And what you said, Mark so much of creating a new product is to in fact, anticipate all the things that not can go wrong, but will go wrong because you think, Hey , I've got this solution. This is going to work just like, I think it will. But inevitably there are so many unseen things that will occur that you're going to have to work on improving . And clearly we're hearing through your process, that there's a lifetime of experience here. When it comes to creating something, taking something to a marketplace, anticipating what needs to be done. Those are all things that of course are going to help the Platypus succeed. Now, Engineering Technologies, doesn't just make the Platypus it's drive from what I understand, Mark, and you can tell us more about it is to use clean energy items to improve the world around us. Now you're working on a couple of other things as well at the same time. What else are you producing or developing right now?

Mark Supal:

Oh , if I come from education and we need to educate not only students, but adults about how to sort plastics, how to deal with trash. So what we , uh, created and actually are, have already released it's available on both the app store and on Google play. It's called the E- bin, E hyphen bin. It's an app that encourages people to recycle and the way it works, you scan a little sticker on a bottle, the QR code, they call them, you scan the QR code on the item that you might be tossing out. And it identifies the type of material it is. And it says, Hey, you need to put that in Bin, ABC or D. So we're encouraging kids to sort plastics and metals and glasses, and then dispose of those in a proper way. So that's one product. We have so many different things, but the other one, believe it or not, and it's a toilet seat let's that cleans itself in today's world, where people are afraid of viruses and so forth. This particular s eat has a mechanical arm that wipes the unusual shape on a bowl, the surface of the bowl, and basically disinfects that. So y ou may sit on that thing and not be concerned about picking up a disease or a virus.

James Di Virgilio:

So many creative things. What , what comes to mind for me when it comes to clean energy. And this is perhaps a devil's advocate question. Most of the time, they don't work. Not because they don't actually work, but they don't work in a marketplace because they're not as efficient to use. Whether it be, Hey, we can use a fossil fuel or we can use something else. Or it tends to be a solution that is too expensive or too slow or not ubiquitous. The things you're working on. Don't seem to suffer from maybe some of the same problems that you would have from, like you mentioned, these larger scale, very ambitious. Let's switch the world over to an electric car in the year, 2005. If we're not ready yet, how much in your thought process goes into that? Hey, is this too soon to be released?

Mark Supal:

The key is to find a customer like you alluded to earlier here, you really need to interview and listen to the people who may buy this product. I did work in a research environment and unfortunately too many times researchers create wonderful things, but there's no market for them. Nobody wants them. So the key is to actually do your market research homework first and see who your customer might be. Otherwise you might produce something fantastic. No one really cares about how the technology works. They just care that it might solve a problem or a headache for them.

James Di Virgilio:

Yeah. So well said, yeah, that's it. That's key. That's one Oh one. But oftentimes, as you said, that's lost in Gainesville, Florida. We have become one of the largest incubator cities in the country. We produce more business ideas and almost anywhere else. And that's something I find myself frequently saying is your idea has to serve a market need. And this is gonna be one step further. And this surprises people, the reason an idea marketplace works so well, is it is the most efficient, you mentioned there's products or there's ideas we can create that are really neat. But society in an idea, marketplace will fund the ones that are most important that are most pressing right now. And that's actually a good thing. That's what you need. Of course, you could have humans spending time creating all sorts of things, but if it helps one person, whereas they could have created something that helps hundreds of thousands of people, you'd certainly rather have that be the latter . And that's something you mentioned. Well, one of the easiest ways to figure that out is to go find out what are some market needs? Who is my customer? How many products would they need? Is this a high level need for them? Or is this way down their list of things they would want? Those are all really, really wise things to look at . And Mark yourself. Interesting background. Obviously you are both a very accomplished educator giving a lot of your time to teaching. You've won a variety awards for those things. You're also a professional engineer. And now in your retirement, you're creating a company to design products, a lot of fascinating stuff you mentioned to me before the podcast, something that I wanted to talk about, which is this idea that you really learned how to present your ideas from teaching.

Mark Supal:

Right? Unfortunately, a lot of times teachers aren't given a lot of credit in their profession, but what I found, I actually moved from industry into teaching, which I thought was wonderful because I was able to bring a lot of cool things to kids that were actually valuable skills that they might need on job. But on the flip side, as the teacher, I developed the ability to present, which is difficult coming out of say a four year degree in engineering to go up in front of a group and talk about something tactical. So after many, many years of teaching, he thinking to myself, well , I need to get back with a company. And now that I have a better set of skills, presentation skills, I think that I would be able to move quite easily through the company and promote ideas better. What I'm trying to say is that to teaching you learn how to present information and by presenting information, people understand your ideas and can make decisions, corporate decisions I'd say so. Yeah, I think not only did I learn from the kids, but also I learned how to present in a way that people can understand what you're saying.

James Di Virgilio:

That sounds like a great takeaway. If you're an aspiring entrepreneur or one now is to hone your communication skills. If you understand the technology behind what you're creating, but you're unable to get your friends who are lay person. So to speak, to understand what you're doing, it's not going to motivate a marketplace and that's something you can practice and a skill you can develop, which you mentioned, teaching is exactly that, right? Take an idea. That's new to people, make it accessible, have them grab onto it, have them get inspired by it. That's, that's very, very powerful stuff. Now, last but not least. I want to talk about something you brought up as well in our pre show, which is very interesting. One of your first inventions happened a long time ago in the 1980s. And it was something called a Hydro Built. You can Google this on your own hydro belt, Supal, it'll pop right up. You'll see images of Mark himself wearing this belt. Now this was an interesting idea. You told me this product sold out. It was actually very successful, right ? But unfortunately it's life sort of ended there. You still have these, you still use them. What is a hydro belt ? And tell us a little bit more about it. It's just an interesting, innovative story.

Mark Supal:

So I was an avid triathlete in back in the infancy of the sport. This event wasn't monitored very closely and I was out there . Swimming in an event is raining. I thought, Oh my God, I'm going to drown out here. I can't even figure out where the shoreline is, but he didn't make it back here I am today. So I said, there needs to be a product for safety. So what I invented was a very thin reusable swim belt . You wear it around your waist has the CO2 cartridge. You yank a cord and it inflates to give you the 15 pounds, which is equivalent to a life vest . And basically you can save yourself in an emergency because during these events, there may be thousands of swimmers around you. You may be kicked, you may cramp up. And if that happens, you can drown . And unfortunately, over the years and those eighties, those early eighties, people were drowning. So this hydro belt, it's a emergency swim belt. And I sold it to triathlete swimmers. I sold all the products I had. And what was interesting about that product, even though it was being advertised in a triathlete magazine, there are all sorts of other people who were asking for it like Cessna pilots who needed to have a product that they could throw on the back of their plane in order to fly over the great lakes and people kayaking needed it. And then I had a lot of interesting calls from pool companies. Believe it or not in the state of Florida, they needed a product for their employees to wear . When they worked around pools, a safety product and event that one of these people falls into pool. They don't swim, they drown. So this product was a way to save yourself in event of an emergency in the water. I sold all the products I had. The big problem with that particular product was getting liability insurance, the liability insurance, the premium alone on that product was under order of, you know , 60 to $90,000 a year. And I wasn't in a position to front that much money. And here I am a young engineer. I didn't understand all the possibilities to meet with investors, to perhaps fund this. And I did continue selling them, sold all the products I had, even though I didn't have insurance. And you know, one way to protect myself by the way was to incorporate. And then after they all sold out, I ended up keeping five because I still do triathlons and I need to wear this thing, but it's something that I need to resurrect the company that was manufacturing, the injection molded parts for me, went out of business and all the tooling was lost. And here it is now some 35, 40 years later as a retiree. I am , I think to myself, I need to resurrect this thing because there's an even bigger need for it. Now with all the new water sports that have been invented besides triathlons, which still go on, they have long distance swimming. They have now kiteboarding, they have this , uh , paddleboarding and all these things require you to be able to move your arms and legs freely the hydro belt and need to resurrect a product and get that thing back out there. Because it's really a wonderful thing for anybody from a child up to an adult who is into water or near the water or onto water.

James Di Virgilio:

Well, if you're interested in the hydro belt, you can certainly contact Mark Supal. He is the chief technology officer at Engineering Technologies, LLC, creator of a bunch of interesting things. You can visit his website. You can get in touch with Mark. You can connect with him on LinkedIn. He is also right now a finalist for the Cade Prize, which of course does reward inventors like Mark creative problem solvers. Mark. It's been wonderful having you on the program today. Thank you so much for being with us.

Mark Supal:

Oh, well thank you for the opportunity here . And I hope that we can solve this problem by, like I said, there are so many problems that even the lay person can tackle. People don't realize how simple it is to invent and just be very perseverant in your ability to actually to make something and put it together. It's not that difficult to do so I appreciate your time. Thank you very much.

Outro:

Radio Cade is produced by the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention located in Gainesville, Florida . This podcast episodes host was James Di Virgilio and Ellie Thom coordinates, inventor interviews, podcasts are recorded at Heartwood Soundstage and edited and mixed by Bob McPeak . The Radio Cade theme song was produced and performed by Tracy Collins and features violinists , Jacob Lawson .