Engineering ideas

03 September 2012

Intellectual Property Office IP Insight

Creative people are often asked what gave them an idea: where they were, what they were doing when the inspirational thought clicked into place. Perhaps those of us who struggle to look at the world as merely being a representation of one way doing things, might learn something from their answers. After all, creativity is the most important resource in any economy.

Richard Ayre, an inventor from Pembrokeshire, was out in his boat on St Bride’s Bay anchoring buoys onto the sea bed when he had this particular idea. At the time he was thinking about a specific question: how do you stop trawlers dragging their nets through the delicate and protected coral reefs of the west coast of Pembrokeshire in a cost effective way?’ As Ayre’s boat drifted off station in the strong tidal currents he had a thought.

‘We were putting a Waverider buoy down in St Brides Bay,’ says Richard, ‘it was a flat calm day. We reached the point where the GPS said the buoy should be deposited and we began the process of craning it over the side. In a matter of minutes we’d moved a mile off station. I remember thinking it was a shame we couldn’t harness that power in some way.’

Richard’s initial idea was to build a tidal power generator on a structure that spread across the seabed, and the device would pay for itself by generating power which could be harvested and fed into the national grid.

That moment, in 1997, saw the beginning of Welsh Company, Tidal Energy Ltd’s (TEL) DeltaStream Project.

DeltaStream: ‘A Free Standing Tidal Energy Device’

This year, ten years after the first prototype tidal energy rotor blade was dipped by Richard Ayre into the deep waters of the River Cleddau, the process of turning the concept of a free standing submerged tidal generator into a commercial reality is well underway. In June 2011 the Welsh press featured images of Wales’ First Minster, Carwyn Jones AM, at St Justinian’s Lifeboat Station opposite Ramsey Island Bird Sanctuary in Pembrokeshire. He had just announced the award of a £6.4M grant to TEL to support the construction and installation of the DeltaStream device in Ramsey Sound, underlining the Welsh Government’s ambitions to take advantage of the vast ocean resource around the coastline of Wales. When installed on the seabed enough power for 1000 homes will be generated from a single 1.2.MW DeltaStream array of three turbines via a subsea and onshore cable into the national grid.

The DeltaStream consists of a triangular framework supporting three submerged turbines. Aside from the unique qualities of the structure (enabling the underwater equivalent of wind farms to be located out of vision and operated in such a way as to maximise power output whilst minimising the stresses associated with stormy, tidal waters), the DeltaStream offers renewable energy using prefabricated and moveable devices capable of being deployed quickly anywhere in the world. It’s a brilliant, elegant concept, as Richard says: ‘it’s utterly, totally different.’

Tidal Energy Ltd

The route from idea to world beating product is not simple. It takes time to research and develop technology, patenting and protecting ideas is as important as the ‘eureka’ moment. Inventors are cautious about the fact that quite often the same ideas may be under development elsewhere. In the case of the DeltaStream that wasn’t the case. ‘In 1997 there were really only about two people in the world interested in this kind of thing,’ says Richard, ‘today there are conferences on the subject all over the world – everybody wants a piece of the action.’

Richard teamed up with Tidal Energy Ltd in 2007. Part funded by renewable energy specialists Eco2 Ltd, the Welsh Government and in partnership with Cranfield University, the Cardiff-based company began developing the commercial product. Tidal generators have the potential to succeed in a global market desperate for practical green energy solutions: Tidal Energy Ltd must now realise that potential.

Management

Taking a product like the DeltaStream to market requires great management skills: the ‘known knowns’ like securing patent and trade mark protection take time and expertise, but each individual project has its own unique characteristics which require sensitive management and flexibility. In the case of the DeltaStream these have a lot to do with the testing ground for the DeltaStream. Ramsey Sound off the western tip of Pembrokeshire may offer six knot currents but it’s also the home of some of the UK’s most stunning wildlife and it’s within spitting distance of the site of the Sea Empress oil spill. Notwithstanding the DeltaStream’s project’s green credentials, here, wildlife comes first. Manx shearwaters, gannets, seals and porpoises splash in the DeltaStream’s waters along with, or perhaps away from, visiting killer whales and basking sharks. All of these species must be assured safety from the submerged rotating blades of the DeltaStream. ‘We’re currently negotiating with over fifty different bodies regarding the implementation of the DeltaStream in Ramsey Sound. This can take a long time and it causes timelines to slip,’ says Richard.

A team effort

Ayre confesses that the slow pace of development can be frustrating, but this is tempered with a practical assessment of the creative process. Inventors, although they strive for individuality must to fit into teams: ‘unless you are surrounded by people who can protect you it’s very difficult to proceed from an idea to a product, almost impossible.’ In joining forces with the business team at Tidal Energy Ltd Ayre says: ‘I needed to couple myself with people with their feet on the ground who could harness my ideas’ and he’s delighted with the results.

The future

The DeltaStream tidal turbine is a work in progress. Ayre and the team in Cardiff have a product which could sell all over the world. The first three hundred ton device is due to be installed in Ramsey Sound in 2013. Its development illustrates what it takes to compete in the global market: an idea, a can do attitude, a team and partnerships, tenacity, funding to develop the idea over a long lead in, protection of intellectual property assets, the capital necessary to enforce that protection and ultimately a means of manufacturing top quality products and managing their dissemination into the global market.

The DeltaStream, a home grown renewable energy product is particularly welcome in Wales. Wales hasn’t recovered from its role as energy provider for the world in the last century and it is washed by some of the strongest tides in the world. The DeltaStream might enable Wales to engage in heavy engineering and energy provision bringing prosperity and confidence back to the hard bitten economy. For any Welsh politician, association with an idea like that would be a dream come true.

In the meantime Richard works on the realisation of the first commercial model: ‘I hope they get on with it,’ says Richard with a chuckle, ‘otherwise I’ll be dead before the project is finished.’

In reality the future for Richard is even less certain than he implies. After all creativity, perhaps, flows from unseen currents.

Green patents

The Patent Office fast-tracks patent applications for ‘green’ technology: for more information go to our Green Channel for patent applications web pages.

Richard Ayre, Inventor of DeltaStream
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