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Teen Invents Way to Get Electricity From the Ocean

A high school senior, 17, wins $100,000 in a national contest. His simple device, called a Gyro-Gen, is aimed at producing pollution-free power from waves.

January 05, 2005|Peter Y. Hong | Times Staff Writer

ENCINITAS, Calif. — Growing up minutes from the waves in San Diego County, Aaron Goldin has long been familiar with the ocean's power and abundance. Now, the wiry 17-year-old with a passion for sailing and physics has found a way to turn the force of the ocean's waves into electricity.

Aaron's invention, fashioned in his garage from castoff pieces, could lead to a huge benefit for mankind: practically limitless pollution-free power. It has already paid off in a big way for him. The San Dieguito High School senior won $100,000 in the national Siemens-Westinghouse Competition in Math, Science and Technology for his invention, which he calls the Gyro-Gen.

Finding clean ways to generate electricity is a challenge that vexes the best minds in science. Aaron's idea came to him one day when he was playing with gyroscopes in his garage.

Despite its humble origins, Aaron was immediately aware of the potential for his discovery. "It's the closest I've seen to [a power source] being environmentally benign," he said.

The Gyro-Gen is basically a gyroscope attached to the crank of a generator. Mounted inside an ocean buoy, the spinning gyroscope pushes against the force of waves and turns the generator crank.

For his work, Aaron won the top individual prize in the Siemens-Westinghouse contest, which draws nearly 1,300 entries nationwide and features both individual and team awards. The 6-year-old competition, meant to encourage young Americans to pursue technical careers, has become one of the nation's premier science contests, along with the Intel Science Talent Search, which had been sponsored by Westinghouse from 1942 to 1998.

One of the contest judges, Princeton University engineering professor Richard Miles, said Aaron took an idea for applying a scientific principle and "turned it into reality, demonstrating great independence and originality."

Aaron spends his summers volunteering at the Scripps Oceanographic Institute, where his father, Michael, is an electrical engineer. At the institute, researchers were wondering if it would be possible to build a research vessel that could be self-powered.

With that target in mind, Aaron said, he pondered ways to draw electricity from waves. When he came up with his gyroscope idea, he could not figure out how to apply the idea to powering a boat.

He soon realized it didn't matter and that producing electricity was a far more significant application.

In addition to inspiring him to think about wave-generated power, Aaron said, Scripps played another important role in his work: The institute's trash became an excellent source of equipment and components.

Everything from hunks of plastic to 1980s-era computer printers was scavenged from institute discards for Aaron's prototypes. He tests his devices with old oscilloscopes from the labs.

The family sacrificed for his work. Aaron's first prototype used the front wheel from his younger sister's bicycle. As the project consumed more garage space, his parents parked their cars outside for a year. His father and high school teachers mentored his research.

Showing his latest model to a reporter in the garage workshop, where his tools are neatly arrayed on a table topped with a "Do Not Touch" warning, Aaron identified the origins of the pieces. Some came from obsolete consumer items: a flywheel from a reel-to-reel tape player, a small motor from a telephone answering machine, "the kind that used tapes," he explained. Ball bearings came from a wheel of his skateboard, which he surrendered to the greater cause of energy for the world.

Before the Siemens-Westinghouse contest, Aaron won several other honors, including a first place in the California State Science Fair.

He was selected to attend the national Siemens-Westinghouse competition in Washington, where he triumphed in December.

The honor has brought Aaron wide attention. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger telephoned his house to congratulate him. ("He said he's very glad I did what I did, that it's good for the state.") Former presidential candidate John Kerry also called. ("He actually talked about his concerns about energy. He said it's a very worthy thing to look into, and he hopes I continue.")

ABC News featured him on the nightly newscast as the "Person of the Week."

Linda Goldin, Aaron's mother, said the honors are especially gratifying because "people in sports, actors and entertainment people always get headlines. Not much is said about unsung heroes in math, science and other academics."

Even before his Siemens-Westinghouse win, Aaron felt he had a significant invention and sought help from a patent lawyer. Bing Ai, Aaron's lawyer, said he often hears from people whose ideas have little merit. But as soon as he saw Aaron's description of the Gyro-Gen, the lawyer said, he knew the invention was meaningful. Ai is working with Aaron on patenting the device, which could take from two to four years, Ai said.

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