Dec 26, 2015 | By Alec

Without a doubt renewable energy is the future, but specialists are largely focusing on large scale sun, water and wind installations and long distribution networks to bring that energy to the people. But with so much wind, water and sun energy reaching our homes already, couldn’t we just rely on small-scale local innovations that save energy by cutting down transportation costs? That, in a nutshell, is what a fascinating Belgian startup is all about. Called Turbulent, these engineering innovators are working on small scale 3D printed turbines that can generate enough power from a single small river or stream to sustain a few families. Perfect for remote areas and the developing world.

This intriguing approach is currently being developed by Geert Slachmuylders and Jasper Verreydt, who have already generated quite a bit of buzz in innovating circles and were among the winners of the Additive Design Challenge. As they explain, they are essentially seeking to solve some common problems with (renewable) energy supplies. While 1.3 billion people have no access to electricity today (and many more rely solely on polluting energies such as diesel generators), renewable energy just can’t seem to become profitable. “Due to various reasons, most sources are still too much dependent on government grants. Second, energy sources like wind or solar are volatile and very dependent on their environment, which is causing grid stability problems,” they say.

Unlike its competitors, hydropower is much less affected by these issues, but brings its own problems to the table. “Traditional hydropower projects using large constructions and dams are creating other problems like flooding, desertification, people migration, increase of methane emission, etc,” they say – think of the dams on the Nile. What’s more, none of these solutions can be applied to remote locations with no or limited energy grids. “A form of decentralized green energy production with standard materials and easy installation is needed,” they rightly state.

And that is, essentially, what they are creating with the help of 3D printed prototypes. Turbulent is a compact, efficient hydropower plant that generates energy by exploiting the natural principle of vortexes that are created in even small streams. “My colleague Geert was looking at bridge pillars and noticing that behind these bridge pillars, in rivers, the natural principle of a vortex occurs. And he thought what if we could manufacture a vortex that generates the energy in the most efficient way?,” explains Jasper Verreydt. “We are creating a vortex in a river with a height difference of just 1m, where the vortex will make all the energy available in the stream to concentrate on one single point. A very small river is already sufficient to cover the average energy use of 3 to 4 families.”

In fact, these small hydropower plants can be placed in small rivers with a height difference of just 2 m (thus not blocking a river’s natural function like a dam does), and generate up to 200 kW. Combined with an optimized impeller and control software, efficiency is kept to a maximum while these plants require very little maintenance. “Our turbine is easy to install and has no impact on its surroundings, the water flow and the environment. This way, Turbulent can provide a solution which is reliable, easy to maintain and economically interesting. In addition, the hydropower plant can be remotely monitored and can be easily connected to other sources or smart grids,” the entrepreneurs add. The energy is also completely clean, fish friendly, and perfect for the far corners of the developing world.

This initiative sounds great to us, and we’re not the only ones. Turbulent has already partnered up with technical specialists such as Autodesk and VITO, and have received capital from KIC Innoenergy, Iminds and the Belgian government. This, in part, is how 3D printing found its way into the mix. “We took part in the Additive Design Challenge, mainly because of the engineering consultancy and a 3D printing budget, which proved to be essential for our prototyping and technology development,” says Verreydt. And as you can see in the clip below, all essential parts have been initially prototyped using 3D printers, before turning to other manufacturing technologies for final iterations.

And with the help of 3D printing, Turbulent has already discovered that their small engines are far more efficient than larger competitors. “Our competitors focus on very low rotating speed of their turbine. This means that they are working with very high torques and this forces them to use large infrastructures, like a concrete base made in detail to specific specs. Besides that, a big, slow turning rotor require a lot of, installation equipment and expertise to build these kind of plants,” they explain. “Because we use smaller components, our logistics and installation will be much easier and efficient. The software does the rest, from efficiency control to predictive maintenance.”

While Turbulent is still very much in development (a test site is currently being developed), all the ingredients thus seem to be there to make a long term, positive and sustainable impact on our energy consumption. What’s more, the Belgian entrepreneurs are also already looking at other applications. “One big application can already be found in protecting offshore wind farms from soil erosion by extracting the turbulence of flows around the monopoles, thus increasing the lifespan and drastically saving on offshore maintenance costs,” they say. While much more research is needed, Turbulent hydropumps could thus make other forms of sustainable energy more cost-effective as well.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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kb wrote at 12/27/2015 12:32:32 PM:

The vortex part doesn't make sense. A vortex suck air through the turbine which causes a drop in efficiency, unsteady power output, vibrations, mechanical fatigue... Also if they make it like designed it would get stuck quickly with branches.

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