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Saturday, February 11, 2006

Energy invention does vanishing act

Prototype built to demonstrate how waves can generate electricity goes missing after launch in Po Toi


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Copyright  ©2006. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.
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It would have taken two or three large fishing boats to haul away the long electricity-generating wave machine. Picture by Norma Connolly

An experimental electricity generator powered by waves has disappeared off the coast of Po Toi island just one day after its French inventor installed it.

Lucien Gambarota believes the 27.5-metre-long, $100,000 stainless steel and polyfoam machine could have been stolen by mainland thieves on boats.

Mr Gambarota, 47, had hoped to reveal the Motorwave to the media and potential investors later this month.

He has vowed to rebuild a cheaper plain steel version of the prototype which he plans to launch off Po Toi at the end of this month.

He said if the experiment was successful, it would provide electricity and clean drinking water to the residents of the sparsely populated island, which is not connected to Hong Kong's power grid and gets its electricity supply from diesel generators.

"I went to see the people of Po Toi and explained my technology to them. They were very enthusiastic," said Mr Gambarota, whose usual job involves making toys, including lollipops that light up.

His Motorwave, which he has patented and hopes to eventually launch in an initial public offering on the Nasdaq exchange, was a prototype built to demonstrate how the energy of waves could generate electricity at a cost of just one cent per kWh. His self-funded project was supported by the Marine Department and researchers at Hong Kong University's mechanical engineering department.

Residents at Po Toi had just one day to admire the distinctive-looking equipment before it was stolen.

Mr Gambarota and colleagues spent most of the day assembling the machine and planned to bring it back to shore each day. But when they realised it was too heavy and unwieldy to bring back, they anchored it and left it bobbing gently in the waters off Po Toi. "We'd intended to go back the next day, but fishermen from Po Toi told us there was no more machine. We got a boat and looked around, but there was no trace of it," he said.

While he had no proof it was stolen, he felt someone would have spotted it by now if it had drifted away.

"It's not a small object and it's quite unusual looking. It's 27.5 metres long by 3 metres wide. It's on floaters, so it can't sink. The floats are polyfoam, which can't be deflated," he said.

He said he had heard that boats and other equipment at Po Toi had been stolen by mainland thieves over the years.

Marine Police South Divisional Commander Mark Taylor said police and Marine Department patrol boats had searched the area for the equipment, but it was nowhere to be found.

He said there had not been a marked rise in the number of thefts at Po Toi and most of the marine thefts in the outlying islands occurred on Lamma, Cheung Chau and the Soko islands.

"It would take two or three large fishing boats to steal it. Someone would surely have noticed that," he said. "The types of vessels around at the time and on our radar were sampans. It would not be possible for them to drag something of that weight away."

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