WHOI, Nelly!

Cape Cod Pitchathon winner designed underwater motor

Score one for ‘elmos’. Andrew Billings, an engineer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), was awarded the top prize of $75,000 in the consortium’s annual Pitchathon in Falmouth, Mass., this week for his derivation of an electric motor designed for underwater applications.

The Pitchathon was held October 5, but winners were released over this past weekend. Billings works in the Applied Ocean Physics & Engineering department of WHOI. His idea is a motor with improved power transfer at a wider range of shaft speeds that is especially useful for battery-operated systems with voltage limitations, such as underwater research rovers. The design built on conventional BLDC parts to counter the recurring difficulty of having to apply specific and separate motors for actuators, thrusters, and pumps when being used underwater, Billings told John P. Desmond of the Falmouth Enterprise (via CapeNews.net), “The effect is much like the transmission in your car. As far as we can tell, the idea is novel and a patent is being applied for.”

Multiple motors on a single shaft change from high to low speed by use of a clutch or electromagnetic disconnect system, according to the Enterprise article. He believes a 4×2 inch prototype of his motor (which he plans to construct using the $75,000 grant) could produce two or three horsepower and operate at a low voltage “very efficiently”. Billings also said his target market will likely be the specialized pumps industry, with additional outlook for the military’s interest.

Electric motor “innovations” often receive awards; it’s common to see new models and designs heralded at conventions, in the greater trade press, and in both the educational and R&D aisles of engineering. WHOI, in particular, has a rich history from its revered vantage point on Cape Cod. Founded in 1930, the non-profit joined a thriving ocean science community in the village of Woods Hole, that included the Marine Biological Laboratory and the National Marine Fisheries Service. At the time, the world was only a little more than 50 years removed from the first efforts to systematically study the ocean, WHOI says. It is the largest ocean research institution in the world, and the mother of DSV Alvin, the pioneering mini-sub that first surveyed the wreckage of the Titanic in 1986.

“We are reliant on batteries, which have a limited energy and are used for low voltage,” Billings said. “Motors like high voltage. My strategy is to separate the torque constant from the voltage constant.”

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