What if ships could sail farther without needed to refuel? A clever device holds promise.

By David Z. Morris
December 29, 2014

The WITT energy harvesting unit (short for Whatever Input to Torsion Transfer) shows that even in our digital age, there’s room for improvement in old-fashioned mechanics. WITT devices operate on the same principle as a self-winding watch—but instead of a single pendulum, their twin sickle-shaped weights swing horizontally, rotate vertically, and twist around an axis, sending energy through a central gearbox into a linear flywheel. A WITT can tap into the chaotic motion of a walking human, a jostling off-road vehicle, or a bucking fishing boat to produce usable, clean power. “It could have been invented 50 or 100 years ago,” says Mairi Wicket, WITT’s managing director. (Her husband Martin invented the device in 2009.) The British company has established partnerships with the University of Exeter, vehicle engineering firm Supacat, and port operator A&P Group. The device is particularly attractive to the marine sector because it can capture chaotic ocean energies from within a corrosion-resistant enclosed sphere. WITT is testing simple applications such as self-charging navigational buoys and data gatherers. But the units may someday serve as ballast, motion dampener, and supplemental generator onboard ships at sea—an enticing prospect for a shipping industry where fuel efficiency equals profitability.

This story is from the January 2015 issue of Fortune.

For more stories from our Shape the Future package, click here.

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