updated 12/6/2010 6:48:45 PM ET 2010-12-06T23:48:45

Two miles offshore of Fort Pierce, Fla., a pair of eight-foot-tall metal wings flap to and fro on the seabed, cradled by the ocean's swells.

This is not some underwater performance art. The point of the project is to demonstrate an alternative way to produce electricity that is clean, green and friendly to marine life.

The so-called Wing Waves work by tapping the elliptical motion of waves 30 feet to 60 feet beneath the surface and converting it into mechanical energy that can be used to generate power. Like offshore wind farms, the electricity produced at sea can be routed via cables for land-based needs.

Advocates say wing waves are more aesthetically pleasing than wind turbines since they operate fully submerged beneath the sea.

"You just need a nice sandy bottom -- we stay away from coral reefs -- and a 40- to 50-foot depth. You can think of them as sea fans," said Stephen Wood, an assistant professor of marine and environmental systems at Florida Institute of Technology's College of Engineering.

Wood figures one square mile of wings -- about 1,000 units -- could provide enough electricity to power more than 200,000 homes.

"This will work in any coastal region with swells coming in," Wood told Discovery News.

The prototype has been operating since Nov. 17 and is due to be retrieved next week. During the test-run, the wings, which are anchored to the floor of the ocean, were instrumented to record wave motion and other data.

Each trapezoid-shaped wing stands eight feet in height and 15 feet wide -- a size limited by the width of the road to transport the wings from the assembly site to the sea.

"To go much bigger, we'd need a plant right next to the ocean," Wood said.

The wings can sway 30 degrees from side to side and complete the arc in eight to 10 seconds, said Terence Bolden, chief executive with Clean and Green Enterprises Inc., which holds a patent for the technology.

Even on calm days, engineers say there is enough of a subsurface ocean swell to push and pull the wings through their full range of motion. During extremely rough seas, such as during hurricanes, the wings are designed to be automatically locked down.

The prototype now working off the Florida coast is made of aluminum, but operational models would be built out of a composite material that is more resistant to corrosion.

"If it's done correctly, the wings should last 20 years, but you have to have constant servicing," Wood said.

The devices actually attract fish and will not harm sea turtles, he added.

"We're trying to make the whole thing as environmentally friendly as possible," Wood said.

Clean and Green Enterprises, a renewable energy firm based in Tallahassee, Fla., has been working on the system for five years. In addition to producing electricity, the wing waves are part of a related system for desalinizing sea water.

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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