Mukilteo engineers unveil tsunami survival capsule

  • By Kurt Batdorf HBJ Editor
  • Thursday, June 13, 2013 6:03pm

MUKILTEO — Two years ago, aerospace engineers Julian Sharpe and Scott Hill were working on a design for a tsunami survival capsule after witnessing the damage inflicted by a massive 9.0 earthquake and tsunami on Japan’s east coast in March 11, 2011.

On Wednesday, Sharpe, Hill and partners Anthony Figlioli and Aaron Acklen of Survival Capsule LLC and IDEA International, Inc., introduced the first production version of the bright orange SC2001 tsunami survival capsule at Mukilteo Lighthouse Park and delivered it Thursday to Iwao Iwama, managing director of Toho Mercantile Co. in Tokyo.

Sharpe is president and CEO of Survival Capsule LLC and IDEA International, Inc., a Mukilteo aerospace and structural engineering firm.

The SC2001 tsunami survival capsule is a sphere made with a tubular aluminum skeleton clad in 5000-series aluminum skin. In designing the prototype, Sharpe and Hill reasoned that a sphere would have the best chance of surviving a tsunami because a round object will bounce off solid items such as buildings or vehicles while being highly resistant to penetrating impacts from debris. The aluminum structure and skin offer proven technology, handle impacts well, dissipate heat quickly and won’t rust. An integrated marine door with a four-point latch offers a positive water seal.

Sharpe said he added six inches to the two-seat prototype’s diameter, making it considerably roomier inside.

Japan learned painful lessons in the 2011 tsunami that caused a partial meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power reactor. Sharpe said the Japanese Meterological Agency has admitted fault for inadequate tsunami predictions in which many victims were told they would be safe in two-story buildings. In some cases, the tsunami surge swamped even three-story buildings, he said.

The earthquake was the most powerful temblor ever to hit Japan. It triggered waves that reached heights of up to 124 feet in coastal Miyako and travelled up to 6 miles inland in the Sendai prefecture. A 2012 Japanese National Police Agency report confirmed 15,883 deaths, 6,145 injured and 2,671 people missing, 129,225 buildings totally collapsed and 945,970 other buildings damaged.

Now the Japanese government has committed $3.5 billion for local prefectures to develop local solutions to the next tsunami, Sharpe said. Japan has set aside $6.5 billion more for additional tsunami preparation efforts.

Sharpe thinks Survival Capsule LLC’s products could be part of the answer.

Toho Mercantile will take delivery of 10 more two-person tsunami survival capsules in September, Sharpe said. Those units will be delivered in kit form for final assembly in Japan. Survival Capsule’s primary dealer will be located in Osaka, with eight other dealers located in other Japanese areas hit hard by previous tsunamis.

Sharpe said Toho Mercantile believes there will be a strong market for the survival capsules since 30 million elderly Japanese residents live within identified tsunami areas. That age group suffered the most in the 2011 earthquake, he said.

The Japanese Meteorological Agency estimates 2.5 million residents would be in harm’s way should a tsunami with waves 150 to 300 feet high surge into densely populated Tokyo, Sharpe said. Even if 90 percent of the population survives in that scenario, he said, that still leaves up to 250,000 casualties. That’s where deployment of his survival capsules could help.

“The tsunami isn’t going to happen the day after you buy it,” Sharpe said.

Survival Capsule LLC built two prototypes, one for destructive testing and another for the 17th annual Technology Against Earthquakes Expo in Yokohama, Japan, in February, where it got “a huge response and spurred us on,” Sharpe said.

Eddie Bernard, a noted tsunami expert and director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, helped Survival Capsule LLC refine the environmental conditions the capsule would likely face when it’s deployed.

The SC2001 capsule is counterweighted to keep the sphere upright, Sharpe said. Drinking water and oxygen tanks are stored below the seating area to keep the center of gravity low. The capsule has one standard window, watertight air vents and hoist points for its eventual recovery.

The SC2001 doesn’t come cheap, though. Once Sharpe and Hill started engineering the capsule to survive the expected hazards of water, debris impacts and fire while providing shelter and supplies for two to three weeks, the price hit $12,000.

Sharpe believes in the potential of his company’s capsules. On the drawing board are larger capsules that seat four, six, eight and 10 people, he said. Toho Mercantile’s capsule, once it reaches Japan, will be featured at a disaster preparedness expo in Sendai, home of the destroyed Fukushima nuclear reactor, and three or four other disaster expos before the company starts taking orders later this year and delivering the American-made kits to buyers.

Kurt Batdorf: 425-339-3102;