Hydroelectricity Without Turbines or Dams? Vortex Hydro Energy Says It’s All About the VIV

8/17/11Follow @XconomyDET

What if you could generate hydroelectric power without turbines, propellers or dams—but by simply harnessing the current from the water the generator is placed in? According to Ann Arbor, MI-based startup Vortex Hydro Energy, thanks to a product developed by University of Michigan professor Michael Bernitsas, you can.

Last decade, Bernitsas was attempting to build a better mousetrap, so to speak, but he was stymied by an enemy common to researchers who seek to harness water’s power: Vortex Induced Vibrations, or VIV.

VIV is a phenomenon where vortices—or whirling masses of water—are formed and shed on the downstream side of rounded objects in a fluid current. The vortex shedding alternates from one side of a body to the other, creating a pressure imbalance that causes the body to move back and forth, not unlike a stop sign vibrating on a windy day. Since it was first observed by Leonardo da Vinci in 1504, engineers have been trying to understand VIV and keep its destructive forces away from mechanical, marine, offshore, and nuclear engineering applications.

But Bernitsas approached it from another angle: What if he could somehow utilize and control VIV’s destructive power? His research took an abrupt turn, and it wasn’t long before Vortex Hydro Energy was hard at work commercializing Bernitsas’ invention: the VIVACE converter.

“Our device has just two major components,” says Voretx Hydro Energy CEO Gus Simiao (pictured above) about the prototype his company has built. “The cylinder is placed horizontally in the water, and the water’s current causes it to move up and down. The energy in the movement of the cylinder is then converted to electricity.”

Simiao points out that the principle used by his company’s prototype is the same one used by fish to propel forward.

Vortex Hydro Energy successfully tested the first generation of its prototype in the St. Clair River last year. The second-generation model, tested this past spring, incorporated modifications born of that testing to improve energy generation. Ultimately, Simiao said, the company’s goal is to supply power through its generators to industrial facilities that are located near rivers and oceans.

Vortex Hydro Energy already has the support, both financial and otherwise, of several major players in the world of hydroenergy, including the U.S. Navy, the National Science Foundation, DTE and NextEnergy. A few months ago, the startup hired seven new employees to sustain its own forward momentum.

“We’ve begun working on the third-generation prototype,” Simiao says, “and we should be ready for market between 2013 and 2014.”

Sarah Schmid is the editor of Xconomy Detroit. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET

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