Wanted For Power Production: Bad Swimmers

That dude with the hideous, unhinged butterfly stroke that sends whitecaps across the lap pool? You might hate it when he’s in the lane next to you, but he’s our guy. He’s the big energy producer in the Yinger Jin vision of powering the world by capturing the wave energy of recreational swimming pools.

OK, that “power the world” part, that’s an overstatement. Jin, a Wake Forest University sophomore, doesn’t actually believe lap swimmers, even really bad butterfliers, can produce prodigious or even very meaningful amounts of energy. “We are talking a very small scale,” he says. But Jin has turned his light-bulb moment – Hey, those waves contain energy! – into some enterprising science.

pool power

Sophomore Yinger Jin with his wave-powered electric generator. (image via Wake Forest University)

It all started with a class on the mathematics of sustainable energy.

“During the class we looked at the amount of energy that can be produced from sustainable energy sources on Wake Forest’s campus,” mathematics professor Sarah Mason, Jin’s teacher, said. “Wave energy was something we talked about but obviously we don’t have an ocean here and lakes don’t typically generate many waves.”

But Jin knew a place – the Reynolds Gym pool, where he swims regularly.

Just as students have been playing with the idea of putting to use energy expended spinning on stationary bikes or hammering away on elliptical trainers, Jin saw a possibility in the pool. To test his idea, he built an oscillating water column. This is one a handful of major types of wave energy converters that companies and researchers are toying with these days in the nascent sector – in Australia, a 1-megawatt oscillating water column device is expected to be in the water soon.

It’s a simple concept: waves drive a column of air through a turbine that produces energy.

Jin’s device produce electricity, allowing him to build a mathematical model to determine how much energy might be pulled out of the Reynolds Gym pool. His number: 10 kilowatt-hours – if people swim the energy-intensive butterfly. And, who knows, maybe more if they swim it really badly.

Sports columnist, newspaper desk guy, website managing editor, wine-industry PR specialist, freelance writer—Pete Danko’s career in media has covered a lot of terrain. The constant along the way has been a fierce dedication to knowing the story and getting it right. Danko's work has appeared in Wired, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.