After studying innovative ways to make electricity from water for the last seven years, Burt Hamner’s latest venture aims to turn the typical hydroelectric model on its head.
Instead of making lots of power in one place—say from a massive dam, an array of tidal energy devices at the bottom of Puget Sound, or even small turbines in water treatment plants—he says there’s value in making tiny amounts of electricity anywhere there’s flowing water, from streams to garden hoses.
After refining a business plan and prototype designs over the last half-year, Hamner’s startup, Hydrobee, is in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign to raise $48,000. It would fund initial manufacturing and testing of a tiny hydropower turbine and rechargeable battery the size of a beverage can that outputs power via a USB port. As of Wednesday morning, the campaign had raised $13,562 from 293 backers.
The rechargeable turbine battery is attached to a housing and placed in a stream flowing at least at walking speed, or towed behind a boat. The turbine battery unit itself can also be connected directly to a faucet or hose to charge up from domestic flowing water. Hydrobee calls its device “the first affordable alternative to other ‘off-grid’ USB charging technologies already on the market.”
It would compete with devices including solar chargers and hand-crank generators to bring power for charging USB-connected devices to a variety of markets, from GPS-toting backpackers to disaster victims whose water is often restored before their power to millions of people in the developing world with mobile phones and LED lights but without reliable electricity to charge them.
Hamner says that the hydropower potential in streams has traditionally been ignored because it would have been too expensive for the small amount of power produced, and there wasn’t the category of micro-powered devices that could benefit.
“USB power ports are as common as electrical outlets now around the planet,” Hamner says. “It’s created an entirely new ecosystem of micro-powered devices.”
Hamner has ample experience in the world of hydropower. Trained as a marine biologist, he spent much of his career as a clean technology consultant. In 2007, he evaluated hydrokinetic technologies for Tacoma Power, and determined they were not viable because of the Northwest’s low electricity prices (thanks to the abundant, low-cost power of the region’s hydroelectric dams). That year, he started Seattle-based Hydrovolts—more on its disposition in a minute—which looked to put small turbines in wastewater treatment plants and irrigation ditches.
At Hydrovolts, Hamner says, he was asked whether the turbines could go in pipes, too. They couldn’t. But during his research, Hamner came across a Chinese-made water flow meter powered by a tiny turbine that attaches to a pipe.
“I realized that if it was adapted, it could become a USB port,” Hamner said during an interview this summer at Kick, a Seattle startup boot-camp run by Michael “Luni” Libes, as an outgrowth of his Fledge “conscious company” accelerator.
Hamner’s initial concept was to create power from water pressure in pipes and hoses, but that was abandoned—at least for the time being—because of the red tape involved in dealing with a building’s plumbing, and the lack of a clearly visible market.
Hamner continued working on the idea at Kick, and later as one of four companies in the Fall 2013 Fledge class.
“You don’t know what the solution is yet,” he said, describing the process of refining the idea. “You have a good idea, but you need to find a market, and iterate, and iterate. This has been a personal journey that started off with gigantic-scale power in the ocean, and iterated until I found what I think is a globally useful product at the micro-scale, but it’s still hydropower.”
While the Hydrobee is a relatively simple concept, it’s taken significant effort to reduce it to practice, Hamner says, adding that a patent is pending. Hamner’s co-founder is Dane Roth, an industrial designer he hired at Hydrovolts with products including the Clarisonic skin brush to his credit. They used a 3D printer at Seattle’s Makerhaus to create a model. The company is funded thus far by Hamner and Fledge LLC. He pitched to investors at Fledge’s Demo Day last week.
Funding is only part of what Hydrobee is looking for from Kickstarter. Hamner also hopes to crowd-source additional application ideas.
“The exciting thing about launching a crowd-funding effort is inviting people to be creative about new solutions,” he said.
Hamner left Hydrovolts about a year ago. The company was on the cusp of commercializing its micro turbines early this year when it ran out of money. Hamner writes on the Kickstarter page that “Hydrovolts was sold to one of its investors early in 2013.” Attempts to contact Hydrovolts President Mike Layton have been unsuccessful.
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