Brazil’s CARE Electric Energia has designed a turbine system that captures energy from the natural flow of a river-without altering its natural state-and converts it to electricity. The turbines are cheap to operate because they are automated by software, allowing them to be remotely controlled by sensors and cameras and supervised via the Internet. They can be used to bring electricity to remote areas, reducing pollution from diesel-fueled generators now commonly in use. CARE is one of 26 companies named as 2010 Tech Pioneers by the World Economic Forum.
Johann Hoffmann started patenting inventions to protect the environment while still a young boy in his native Austria. His first-created when he was just 14-was a buoy system to contain oil spills in the ocean that’s still being used today. Hoffman’s work eventually led him to Brazil, where, among other things, he developed a method to clean up mercury contamination from gold mining in the Amazon River.
Now 61, the lifelong inventor is working today not just on keeping waterways clean but also on exploiting their enormous energy. The goal: to bring clean electricity to areas with little or no access to power. Hoffmann and his partners at CARE Electric Energia, based in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, have designed a turbine system that generates electricity from the natural flow of a river-without needing to build a dam.
The system purports to be more efficient than traditional hydroelectric systems, while at the same time being kinder to the environment. “It is not just a technological advance that has been achieved,” says Hoffmann, “but a way of providing for greater socioeconomic development of poor communities in developing countries and increasing clean energy.”
CARE Electric Energia is one of 26 companies named Dec. 3 by the World Economic Forum as 2010 Tech Pioneers offering new technologies or business models that could advance the global economy and have a positive impact on peoples’ lives.
The Brazilian company’s novel approach to hydroelectric power involves suspending structures in the middle of a flowing river that contain turbine blades, which spin not only from the horizontal flow of the water but also from vertical water pressure that builds up behind the installation. All told, CARE Energy says, that allows its turbines to generate power at 90% of their installed capacity, compared with productivity for traditional hydroelectric systems that rarely exceeds 60%.
There are numerous other advantages. Fish channels are incorporated in the structure, permitting passage up and down stream. A passage for small boats can be incorporated in the structures, allowing the river to maintain its ecological balance and its often vital role in commerce and transportation. Unlike a dam, which causes silt and other material to build up behind it, the river continues to flow unimpeded past CARE installations. And except for seasonal variations in the height of the river, the system can operate year-round-unlike dam-based systems, which typically must be throttled for months at a time during dry periods to allow the reservoir to replenish.
The module nature of the turbine system also makes it easy to build in out-of -the-way places: the parts can be manufactured on an assembly line, like a car, and individual sections transported to a site, by helicopter if necessary, and assembled at the point of operation. The units are adaptable to almost any river, eliminating long and costly planning, the company says.
The cost of operation is low due to two factors. First, the turbines are automated by software, allowing them to be remotely controlled by sensors and cameras and supervised via the Internet, says the company. Secondly, their design allows them to be placed almost anywhere, so they can be located close to the point of energy consumption.
Of course, one of the greatest advantages of the CARE system is that it doesn’t involve constructing a dam, filling a reservoir, and flooding land. That’s hugely important, especially in Brazil, where 34,000 square kilometers of land has been flooded to build dams and more than a million persons removed from their properties. With CARE’s technology, people will no longer have to leave their homes due to planned flooding and for many, in remote locations, it will become economically feasible for the first time, to bring electricity to areas with little or no access to power, reducing pollution from diesel fuels now in use.
If the use of CARE’s turbines spreads from Brazil to the rest of the world, developed countries could ramp up their production of hydroelectricity, one of the cleanest and most reliable sources.
Informilo has syndicated this story and others about the 2010 Tech Pioneers to BusinessWeek.