The ocean tur­bines Herb Wil­liams imag­ined in jail are big busi­ness now

Her­bert Wil­liams got rich by in­vent­ing an un­der­sea tur­bine. You’ll never guess where he came up with the idea

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - NEWS - Story Bob Parks

Even when the nar­cos handed over a brown pa­per gro­cery bag full of $100 bills, Her­bert Wil­liams says, he was mostly think­ing about the boat. They’d hired him to build a su­per­fast cata­ma­ran, telling him they needed to ex­pe­dite de­liv­er­ies of cer­tain goods from Colom­bia to, uh, Ger­many. Wil­liams had ex­pe­ri­ence build­ing fast, dou­ble-hull fish­ing ves­sels, but he’d al­ways dreamed of in­vent­ing some­thing big­ger, more out­landish. Such was his ex­cite­ment in hav­ing the dream fi­nanced that he will­fully ig­nored the warn­ing signs. “I’m build­ing a boat,” he re­mem­bers think­ing. “Chevro­let doesn’t ask cus­tomers what they in­tend to do with its cars.”

Work­ing out of South Florida, Wil­liams drew up plans for a 96-foot, wave-pierc­ing craft with twin 1,000-horse­power diesel en­gines. He named it Lady Jes­sica, af­ter his young daugh­ter. He rented cranes, bought quar­ter-inch steel plate to form the hull, and hired a crew to help him put it all to­gether. (This was 1987, so you can imag­ine how Crock­ett-and-Tubbs ev­ery­one looked.) In its first sea trial from Port Char­lotte, the boat sliced through chop where slower craft would have bounced around, wast­ing en­ergy. “It was beau­ti­ful,” Wil­liams says. “From the air, it looked like a del­i­cate wa­ter spi­der or some­thing from

Star Wars.” At 30 knots (about 34 miles per hour), it cruised faster than any­thing its size, even faster than the U.S. Coast Guard cut­ters polic­ing the shores.

As the crew nav­i­gated back to the har­bor, the mar­itime ra­dio crack­led with the voices of ex­cited fish­ing cap­tains mar­veling over the strange boat. But once the cata­ma­ran docked, dozens of uni­formed law en­force­ment of­fi­cials de­scended, putting ev­ery­one aboard in hand­cuffs. An “A-bomb for smug­gling,” they called Wil­liams’s cre­ation. He was con­victed of con­spir­acy to trans­port co­caine af­ter re­fus­ing to dis­close the names of his Colom­bian clients. He didn’t talk, he says, be­cause he feared for his life. Be­fore 1987 was over, the judge sen­tenced him to 10 years in fed­eral prison.

Fed­eral records show Wil­liams was trans­ferred among pen­i­ten­tiary fa­cil­i­ties 48 times in the first two years—an ef­fort to get him to name names, he says. Each time, he found him­self chained to the floor of a bus thick with diesel fumes, lis­ten­ing to hours of ’60s rock at deaf­en­ing vol­ume. Any pris­oner new to a fa­cil­ity must sleep for sev­eral weeks in the prison “fish tank,” a soli­tary cell typ­i­cally with­out bed­ding or heat. The next trans­fer al­ways came right when Wil­liams was about to get a per­ma­nent cell with a bed. In the fourth year, he re­ceived word his wife had di­vorced him.

Slowly, things got bet­ter. With­out ex­pla­na­tion, the trans­fers stopped. Wil­liams started get­ting time off his sen­tence, a com­bi­na­tion of good be­hav­ior and pros­e­cu­to­rial dis­cre­tion. Most im­por­tant, a fel­low in­mate taught him tech­ni­cal draw­ing. Soon, hun­dreds of draft­ing pages is­sued from his pen­cil, de­tail­ing some 32 truly weird aquatic con­trap­tions: cata­ma­ran-shaped cruise ships, gi­ant V-shaped crudeoil col­lec­tors, a pro­peller with way too many blades. “I had to make th­ese things to keep a sense of pur­pose,” he says. “Maybe I made them to show I ex­ist.”

Prison was hor­ri­ble, of course. But it also turned Wil­liams into a full-time in­ven­tor. “Prison set me down, al­low­ing me to stop and think,” he says. Wil­liams’s brain­storms even­tu­ally pro­duced a de­sign for one of the first com­mer­cialscale tur­bines meant to con­vert tidal en­ergy to elec­tric­ity. Ir­ish com­pany OpenHy­dro later bought the patents Wil­liams se­cured for his de­sign and used them to cre­ate the first and still-big­gest source of tidal power sold to con­sumers through the U.K. grid. In 2015, OpenHy­dro was sold for $173 mil­lion to DCNS Group, a French mil­i­tary con­trac­tor. The par­ent com­pany is de­ploy­ing mas­sive 300-ton, 52-foot-high ver­sions of the Wil­liams de­sign in Canada’s Bay of Fundy as well as in Brit­tany, France. While Wil­liams was locked up, it would have been hard to imag­ine that one of his ideas would help power tens of mil­lions of homes. Or that as a tin­kerer with no en­gi­neer­ing ed­u­ca­tion, he would se­cure 18 patents or build tech­nol­ogy for a busi­ness that com­petes against Lock­heed Martin, Siemens, and Gen­eral Elec­tric. Noth­ing so op­ti­mistic en­tered his mind dur­ing his sur­real first few months rid­ing what he calls the diesel-ther­apy bus.

In 1991, at the age of 48 and just shy of five years in prison, Wil­liams was paroled. He gath­ered up his blue­prints and the $27 in gate money from the feds and moved to Palatka, a spot in cen­tral Florida where no­body knew him. In this ru­ral town of 12,000 along the

St. Johns River, 60 miles by wa­ter to the ocean, Wil­liams slowly re­built his life. He started a busi­ness driv­ing pil­ings into the St. Johns to build docks. That pro­vided a steady pay­check, which meant he could start tin­ker­ing again.

For decades, ocean tur­bines have posed a tough en­gi­neer­ing chal­lenge. With­out ex­tra ar­mor, the ma­chines typ­i­cally don’t sur­vive salt­wa­ter or the micro­organ­isms within it. And the tur­bine blades that work great on land of­ten can’t han­dle the stress of the wa­ter, roughly 800 times denser than air. The con­ven­tional so­lu­tion has been to use car­bon fiber or other ex­otic poly­mer re­in­force­ments to make what’s ba­si­cally a stronger, more durable—and much more ex­pen­sive—ver­sion of the three- ma­chines you see on a wind farm.

Wil­liams’s first big in­no­va­tion was to bolt the ro­tor blades to the rim of the tur­bine, like the spokes of a wheel, giv­ing them more sup­port. The new shape im­proved power gen­er­a­tion: As any kid knows, a bike wheel spins slower at its cen­ter and faster at its rim. Like­wise, a tra­di­tional tur­bine’s cen­tral shaft turns rel­a­tively slowly, so en­gi­neers usu­ally con­nect it to a gear­box to reach the speed needed to yield AC power com­pat­i­ble with the grid. Wil­liams started think­ing about ways to har­vest power from the faster outer rim of his tur­bine.

In his dock-build­ing ma­chine shop—a win­dow­less, cor­ru­gated-metal hut shel­tered by two oaks—he set up a makeshift ver­ti­cal lathe ca­pa­ble of milling a huge, 16-foot-di­am­e­ter steel ro­tor. To make the whole rim into one big gen­er­a­tor, such a wheel had to be less than a spark­plug­gap’s dis­tance from the in­side of the tur­bine’s frame. First, he built a gi­ant turntable out of a semitruck’s axle, which he used to spin the ro­tor against the lathe, shav­ings fall­ing to the ground un­til it was per­fectly round to within less than five-thou­sandths of an inch. He tested four pro­to­types for strength and me­chan­i­cal sound­ness in the wa­ter, and when each failed, he threw it on a scrap heap that re­mains on the prop­erty to­day, like a pile of rusty Fer­ris wheels.

On the fifth try, Wil­liams thought he had the right blend of strength and pre­ci­sion. With as­sis­tance from an en­gi­neer, he added mag­nets to the ro­tor and hand-wound con­duc­tive coils to the tur­bine’s steel-framed cas­ing to make the spin­ning wheel it­self the gen­er­a­tor. By strate­gi­cally plac­ing ad­di­tional mag­nets, he kept the parts from ever touch­ing, mean­ing they didn’t need lu­bri­ca­tion. Work­ing with such fine tol­er­ances, Wil­liams had to make sure the tur­bine wouldn’t seize in cold ocean wa­ter. So he dragged an old above­ground swim­ming pool to the work­shop, filled it with four truck­loads of ice, and dunked the tur­bine to see if it would spin freely. He en­vi­sioned tur­bines with main­te­nance sched­uled once a cen­tury.

Other en­gi­neers helped along the way, in­clud­ing some from the Univer­sity of Florida, the U.S. Navy, and, later, the Depart­ment of En­ergy. But col­lab­o­ra­tors say Wil­liams’s big­gest ad­van­tages are the in­stincts he honed as a boat

builder and fish­er­man. “Her­bert’s of­ten more knowl­edge­able about the en­gi­neer­ing side of his ma­chines than my Ph.D.s,” says En­ergy Depart­ment re­searcher Rob Hovs­apian.

In 2004, Wil­liams quit build­ing docks to fo­cus on re­search and de­vel­op­ment. He mar­ried Cor­nelia Danese, the vice pres­i­dent of a lo­cal phone com­pany, and she agreed to man­age his busi­ness as an equal part­ner. To­gether they hired a small staff and raised money from friends and neigh­bors. The big break came later that year, when they at­tracted in­ter­est from Bren­dan Gil­more, the fu­ture co-founder of OpenHy­dro. He brought a crew of elec­tri­cal en­gi­neers to Palatka to ver­ify Wil­liams’s claims.

Dur­ing a test run in the St. Johns, towed be­hind a home­made barge, the 16-foot pro­to­type be­gan to spark as its wires melted down in the wa­ter. But the tur­bine yielded enough cur­rent to power a small neigh­bor­hood, and that was good enough for Gil­more, who bought Wil­liams’s in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty.

OpenHy­dro was as­signed the patents in a 50-50 split of stock in the pri­vate com­pany. The com­pany also re­tained Wil­liams as a con­sul­tant and made him a di­rec­tor. Over the years, how­ever, Wil­liams be­gan to feel his ad­vice was less wel­come. He re­moved him­self from the board in 2007, when the press took no­tice of his con­vic­tion, though he says he re­mains friendly with com­pany ex­ec­u­tives. “We are grate­ful for the con­tri­bu­tion that Her­bert Wil­liams made in the early years of the busi­ness,” Gil­more wrote in an e-mail. “We un­der­stood and re­spected Her­bert’s de­ci­sion to with­draw from the busi­ness nine years ago and wish him well with his fu­ture en­deav­ours.”

In the last few years, as tidal-en­ergy gen­er­a­tors neared large-scale roll­outs, tur­bine tech be­came a valu­able com­mod­ity. (GE, for ex­am­ple, ac­quired Al­stom’s en­ergy di­vi­sions and At­lantis Re­sources pur­chased tur­bine maker MCT from Siemens.) DCNS bought OpenHy­dro as a way to di­ver­sify its war­ship-mak­ing busi­ness. “We’ve im­proved the de­sign to make it more ef­fi­cient, more ro­bust, and cheaper, but from Day One, we didn’t change the prin­ci­ples of the tur­bine,” says Thierry Kalan­quin, chair­man of OpenHy­dro un­der DCNS. “It’s the only one de­signed for the sea, not for the wind and adapted to the sea.”

Wil­liams made mil­lions from the sale of OpenHy­dro. He de­clines to dis­cuss specifics, but it was enough to fi­nance a wind-en­ergy startup over the past eight years and the 520-acre com­pound in Palatka that he and his wife own. He’s now 73. He’s com­pact and usu­ally wears jeans, a col­lared print shirt, boat shoes, and a scuffed Timex. He still works from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. in his work­shop, which is now a lit­tle big­ger—the com­pound in­cludes a 50,000-square-foot fab­ri­ca­tion plant and a freshly paved air­port run­way.

The plant is alive with the sounds of cranes and lathes and the oc­ca­sional con­cus­sive thump of a fallen 70-foot steel tube. Welders are mak­ing metal pieces of stag­ger­ing scale, some higher than 20 sto­ries, some big­ger around than a Boe­ing 737. They’re build­ing parts for a combo gen­er­a­tor/pump Wil­liams has sold to the En­ergy Depart­ment. He says he thought of the idea in his prison cell, in­spired by the multi­bladed wind­mills that helped pump wa­ter in the Old West.

His lat­est ven­ture, Keuka En­ergy, is fo­cused on this kind of wind ma­chine. The pro­to­type car­ries the same dough­nut shape of his ear­lier tur­bines but uses an enor­mous drive belt to turn a pneu­matic pump, yield­ing com­pressed air that can be con­verted into en­ergy. In early tests at Texas Tech Univer­sity, the ma­chine cap­tured low-al­ti­tude gusts of wind bet­ter than tra­di­tional tur­bines, and of­fi­cials at the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture say it may be able to re­place diesel gen­er­a­tors; they’re try­ing it out as part of an en­vi­ron­men­tal project in Texas, us­ing it to force wa­ter from deep un­der­ground. “It’s got a pretty high out­put in terms of wind to en­ergy,” says Jerry Hat­field, di­rec­tor of the USDA’s re­search lab. “We’re con­sid­er­ing whether it can be used as a very ef­fi­cient pump.” Hovs­apian at the En­ergy Depart­ment says the combo gen­er­a­tor/ pump looks a lot eas­ier to main­tain than an in­dus­trial tur­bine. “Once he re­solves a few is­sues,” he says, “a bi­cy­cle me­chanic can work on it.”

A patent ap­proved in Novem­ber re­veals Wil­liams’s longer-term plans. It de­tails a V-shaped barge per­haps a mile long sit­ting in the mid­dle of the At­lantic, a vast repos­i­tory for liq­uid air that can be used to drive gas tur­bines and gen­er­ate elec­tric­ity. Large rim-driven wind­mills store the air in su­per­cold tanks in the barge’s hold. Pe­ri­od­i­cally, nat­u­ral gas tankers take the air to gas-fired power plants around the world, where it can be warmed into gas to spin the tur­bines. It all amounts to an ef­fi­cient way to store wind en­ergy us­ing rel­a­tively cheap, ex­ist­ing in­fra­struc­ture. Wil­liams says that while he may not see this one through, it’s worth start­ing. “You have to get your hands on some­thing in or­der to build it right,” he says. “If all the en­trepreneurs and tin­ker­ers in the coun­try left it to GE and West­ing­house, we’d be in big trou­ble.”

Wil­liams says he’s still draw­ing in­spi­ra­tion from his darker days, too. The Palatka com­pound has hous­ing for his em­ploy­ees, in­clud­ing the oc­ca­sional ex-con. “When you go to prison, the pub­lic turns their backs on you,” he says, but as long as con­victs have ideas, they aren’t out of op­tions. “There are pos­si­bil­i­ties.” <BW>

Photo Tris­tan Whee­lock

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