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Originally published November 6, 2010 at 8:01 PM | Page modified November 7, 2010 at 3:17 PM

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Danny Westneat

'Old fogies' obsession: Turning waves into power

While many of their buddies were golfing or winding down in other ways, four former Boeing engineers — ranging in age from 74 to 92 — threw themselves into one of the holy grails of green energy: how to tap the unceasing power of ocean waves.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Recently a group of Boeing engineers created a little buzz at a scientific conference, when they unveiled their invention for harvesting energy from the ocean.

Partly it was the tantalizing promise of their ideas. They believe they have a way to harness the endless, bobbing motion of ocean waves to generate fuel. Without cluttering the shore with ugly floats, towers or transmission systems.

But some of the buzz was about the engineers themselves. Who are these guys? Their average age: 82.

"We were sitting around saying we can't understand why America isn't doing better in renewable energy," says Fred Lightfoot, 82, an allegedly retired electrical engineer from Bremerton. "And then we thought: 'Hey, we're engineers. Instead of complaining, as we usually do, why don't we come up with something?' "

So began a four-year obsession for the "old fogies," as they call themselves. The oldest, Henry Oman, an energy-systems engineer at Boeing for 43 years, is 92. The youngest, Bill Morchin, a former radar specialist, is 74.

While many of their buddies were golfing or winding down in other ways, they threw themselves into one of the holy grails of green energy: how to tap the unceasing power of ocean waves.

"All my friends think I'm crazy for doing this," says Bob Milligan, 80, who designed computer-control systems at Boeing. "I guess I'm a geek engineer who couldn't quit."

Working 30-hour, sometimes 40-hour weeks out of their home shops and garages, they came up with a green-energy factory that would float far out at sea.

"We worked it like we would a Boeing design drill," Lightfoot said. "It's a process that's in the heart of every red-blooded Boeing design engineer, no matter how old."

The idea of using ocean-wave energy isn't new. A handful of small wave-power plants are in use today, with waves driving an electrical generator.

But they're moored to the sea bottom and so have to be close to shore. Several have sunk when their moorings came loose in storms. Plus there's a major NIMBY problem: People don't want to come to the beach and look at any kind of power plant, including a green one.

Lightfoot, an avid sailor, had an 'aha' moment: How about floating the power plants? Then they could go a hundred miles out, where wave energy is the highest.

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The team came up with fleets of barges, hinged together with hydraulic devices. The barges would roll on the 30-foot swells of the outer continental shelf, the hinges flexing and driving generators to make electricity.

The group suggests converting this electricity to methanol, right on board. That takes water and carbon — which is a good thing, because carbon is something we're trying to reduce anyway to fight global warming. The team has proposed using carbon captured from smokestacks.

When a barge fills up with methanol, it would detach from the fleet and sail into port. Methanol, like ethanol, can be used in cars, especially if it's mixed with gasoline.

"This takes pollutants and converts them to fuel using wave energy," Morchin says. "Now that's recycling!"

At first the team thought of putting wind turbines on the barges, but they realized the energy produced by the rocking and rolling waves would be many times higher. They calculate a fleet of 64 hinged barges could produce 8 million gallons of methanol a year — equivalent in energy to 3.5 million gallons of gasoline.

Morchin and Milligan floated a model of their interlocking barges for me in the Green River the other day. They excitedly displayed charts of measurements showing how smoothly the barges absorbed wave energy — at least during test runs in Milligan's hot tub.

Would it work in the ocean? Somebody needs to test a bigger model, they said. The group has been invited to more scientific conferences, but is starting to lack the energy to go.

"We're old," Morchin said. "We're getting tired out."

That's four years of your lives you gave to this project, I said. That's a lot of work for no pay.

Milligan's eyes shone. He has cancer, he said. The all-over, terminal kind. He was weak from chemo two days before.

"We're not going to be around much longer — I know I'm not," he said. "We just wanted to make a contribution to this country. While we still could."

Then he dismissed that with a wave of his hand.

"That was hokey," he said.

You know, we spend a lot of time doubting in this country. And arguing. Most of the institutions seem dysfunctional. The politics, too.

Then you find out that all the time we were bickering about whatever, we had guys like this, some sick and dying, some so old their memories are failing, out there volunteering away their sunset years. All to try to make the world a better place.

Not for them. For us.

That is a lot of things, but hokey is not on the list.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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