On March 29, 2012, three Western students from Huxley College of the Environment competed in the University of Washington Environmental Innovation Challenge. The team, named Amped Aquatics, developed the Nexus Buoy, a promising renewable energy prototype that converts wave energy into electricity. Although Amped Aquatics and the Nexus Buoy did not walk away with the cash prizes offered to the top five contenders, they took away in life and team experience that was just as valuable.

Senior environmental science majors Aaron Ellig and Andrew Wells met each other in their ESC 480 class, Applications in Energy Production. Professor Rebecca Bunn, who taught the class, contacted Ellig and Wells about the UW Innovation Challenge, an interdisciplinary competition where teams of college students develop and pitch a new, innovative environmental product or technology to businesspeople and investors. Noting that many past applicants developed energy products, the two decided to apply to the competition and use Ellig’s previous idea for a wave-energy converting buoy system.

After recruiting Carolyn Wise, a junior geology major, the team began drawing up ideas and planning for the creation of the Nexus Buoy prototype.

“We drew up probably five or 10 different designs that might work,” Ellig said. “We came up with that and went from there, and started doing all the calculations for what we’d need.”

After a laborious trial-and-error period during the hectic week of winter finals, Amped Aquatics decided on a feasible design. 

The Nexus Buoy consists of two parts: the first is a buoy that bobs in the water connected to a steel rod.

The second part is a magnetic linear generator consisting of strong magnets and electromagnetic coils that are affixed to the ocean floor. As the buoy goes up and down in the water, the steel rod drives the magnets in and out of the coils, producing current.

Ellig said that the buoy would be particularly useful in coastal communities, where most energy is expensively imported.
It would also be useful in island communities where transportation costs of energy drive up electricity prices.

“There’s nothing that’s been developed on a commercial scale for wave energy or even tidal energy,” Ellig said. “It’s a really undeveloped technology.”

Throughout the time before the competition, Wells said that the group had a problem with the business and engineering aspects. All 23 contestants were expected to deliver a business pitch to a panel of more than 150 judges discussing the market and economic feasibility of the product.

“I wasn’t sure what our actual market or application of this idea was going to be, and that was something that we had a challenge trying to identify,” Wells said. “None of us are really business students, so this is something that we had to challenge head on.”

Following the business pitches was a two-and-a-half hour period of time where judges moved around the exhibition floor questioning contestants on their products. It was during this time that Amped Aquatics made contacts with several parties interested in providing legal, investment and capital start-up opportunities to the group.

“Just talking to all these business people and interacting with them and seeing what they had to say and getting a bunch of positive feedback, criticism—everything. It was great to make those connections,” Wells said. “That’s the kind of aspect in business and environmental science that I really like: being this nexus, this connection between business, society, community and energy.”

Despite not placing in the competition, Amped Aquatics said they do not feel their efforts were a failure. Wells said that through the competition, he learned how to effectively contact resources by being nice but assertive.

He said he also learned the importance of interdisciplinary practices and that he would like to see more Western initiative to combine students from different majors and fields of study to work together.

“You have this great interaction where people from different aspects have this chance to learn how to interact with other people,” Wells said. “Being able to learn how to do that will only get you further in life.”

Currently, Amped Aquatics has set aside the Nexus Buoy system in order to pursue their individual educations. Both Ellig and Wells said that there is still a chance that the team will come back to the project later in life.

“I’m not sure what we’d do with it in the future but we might get the spark again and continue to go,” Wells said.
“Honestly, we haven’t really made up our mind. We’re just kind of floating in the moment right now.”