Leveraging the natural energy of water flows is not a new idea; the Romans used this method to carry out useful jobs. This idea has evolved since those ancient times, and today large infrastructures are built to alter the natural course of rivers and generate sufficient electricity to satisfy one-sixth of the worldwide demand. However, there are aspects of these water flows that are still not being taken advantage of, like the energy found in the vortexes that form within turbulent flows. To address this missed opportunity, Geert Slachmuylders has developed a new type of turbine that can extract this energy, leading him to be recognized as one of MIT Technology Review´s Innovator Under 35 Belgium 2016 awards.
"All of the existing turbines are designed to operate with a laminar flow system, and to improve efficiency many efforts are made to avoid turbulences", the young engineer explains. His turbine, in contrast, operates under the opposite circumstances: his design generates a vortex and uses the kinetic energy "stored" in the vortex to produce electricity. "The ability of this technology to scale up from three to 150 kilowatts has been demonstrated, and its reduced size and low installation costs make it suitable for a decentralized electric generation model", he says. A network of turbines is capable of producing the same amount of energy as a small dam, but without needing to interrupt the water flow and flood the valley.
During his studies at university, Slachmuylders became friends with a classmate who lived in a watermill, which prompted him to look for technologies that allowed this hydraulic energy to be leveraged. This project became the subject of his thesis and the seed of his company, Turbulent Hydro, which today has pilot installations in Belgium, though it is in Chile where they are amassing a large number of customers interested in leveraging the irrigation network of canals to produce electricity.
Each turbine works with a water jump of just one and a half meters, and is two meters wide. The design is modular, "like Legos," which allows the installation conditions to be easily adapted on a need basis. Installations typically cost somewhere around 4,000 euros (approximately 4,500 dollars) per kilowatt, much less than thermal plants or plants that burn carbon or petroleum.
"The idea is to turn sustainability into a compelling business, with sufficient adoption of the technology to make a significant impact," Slachmuylders says. In the words of the executive director of Nawa Technologies and jury member for Innovators Under 35 Belgium 2016, Pascal Boulanger, "[Slachmuylders] lends entrepreneurial enthusiasm and large doses of idealism" to the project.