Former beach bum hopes his invention will solve world's energy crisis
"I thought if I ever got anywhere with it, I would finally make my mark in time here on Earth and everyone would know I made something that had a positive effect on everyone and the environment."
Green Lake resident Wallace Kempkey is the inventor of the pterofin, a device he sees as the second generation of renewable water-and-wind-powered energy.
After nearly eight years working on the pterofin, the patent for Kempkey's invention was published Feb. 27, paving the way for what he hopes will be a better way of life in the world's poorest regions.
"With very simple materials, pterofin should be most-efficient at pumping well water to the surface with very low winds," he said. "It's like a sail boat on land that acts like a bird's wing."
Kempkey first thought up the pterofin in 2005 while living as a self-described beach bum in Santa Barbara, surfing and working a part-time job at a golf course.
"Maybe I felt slightly guilty or I wasn't ambitious enough with my goals and projects, so I figured I'd either go big or go home," he said. "I went to the local hobby shop and spent about 50 bucks on balsa wood, copper tubes and rods, and glue."
Kempkey wanted to recreate the motion of a fish's rear fin or a bird's wing in order to turn a generator or pump water.
It wasn't until the next year that Kempkey would solidify his mission for the pterofin.
While selling insurance to wineries in Napa Valley, Kempkey joined the Napa Noon Rotary Club, where he was inspired by presentations on the projects of other Rotarians.
"Watching and comparing myself and the amount of resources I had access to on a daily basis to the children and families displayed on the overhead projector, who literally had nothing but hope, I was truly inspired and hoped to someday create something that would give others a better hope for their future," he said.
Kempkey said thousands of children die every day because of hunger, drought and illness. He said those deaths can be prevented with the right resources, including renewable energy.
So, approximately 10 prototypes later, Kempkey had a working pterofin. The wings needed to be shaped and balanced to maximize lift forces, minimize drag and oscillate while rotating on a shaft to stay facing the wind or current, he said.
"When it finally worked, though, I felt like it was as close as I've ever come to having a baby, which is slightly awkward because I'm a guy," Kempkey said. "It literally brought a tear to my eye."
The current design is simple and inexpensive to create, so it should be able to spread like wildfire, Kempkey said. It can be built out of old bike or car parts and doesn't require much maintenance, he said.
Even better, the pterofin, which can range in size from 2-inches tall to 20-stories high, is quieter and generates power better in low wind and slow water than current turbines, he said.
In 2011, Kempkey's pterofin won the Seattle Pacific University Social Venture Plan Competition, earning him and his team of UW students $2,500, and was an honorable mention in the UW Environmental Innovation Challenge.
He applied for his patent in August, and thanks to an Obama Administration pilot program speeding up the patent process for green technology, he should get it in 2013.
But, Kempkey said he isn't done working on the pterofin.
"I don't think I'll be fully satisfied with the design until it's producing power for a local school or library all on its own," he said.
He said he wants to license the technology out to manufacturers in the United States and abroad and plans to start a nonprofit to get the pterofin where it is needed.
And, once the pterofin is generating electricity and pumping water in developing countries?
"I have so many other ideas that I would love to bring to life," Kempkey said. "I know if this project is a success then that's what I could see myself doing for the rest of my days."
Not bad for a former beach bum who didn't even win his middle-school science fair.
"I didn't get first place or anything," Kempkey said. "I think I got a most-ambitious prize, which was really like the most-unlikely prize."