The Ex-Con Inventor Disrupting Underwater Energy
Turbine tech is tough, because water is 800 times denser than air. Herbert Williams got rich engineering a brand-new approach.
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.
“I had to make these things to keep a sense of purpose. Maybe I made them to show I exist”
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 crude-oil 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 commercial-scale 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-bladed 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 sparkplug-gap’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.