Two of the biggest hurdles for using wind power have traditionally been cost and the need for strong winds to make the giant turbine blades hum. A Hong Kong businessman and part-time inventor thinks he has found a way to overcome those problems with plastic.
Lucien Gambarota, a manufacturers' agent and product developer for Chinese toy factories, has designed a small, injection molded turbine that he says can be made cheaply, making wind power more affordable and practical.
The technology is untested in the real world, but given oil prices at US$70 a barrel and massive pollution in China's skies, Gambarota thinks it's an idea that has some wind behind it.
He's invested more than US$60,000 of his own money, and said his startup, Ace Tower Co. Ltd., is working on a memorandum of understanding with an unnamed investment firm. He and his partners are talking with potential customers in windy Mongolia and in China, where there's interest from poor, remote areas not well-served by stringing electric lines.
Plastic is key to manufacturing it affordably, he said.
``It is because of plastic that it is going to be done,'' he said. ``We could do exactly the same thing in aluminum, but at the end the cost would be so high that it won't be any improvement.''
Each polymer wind turbine is tiny, no more than 20 inches in diameter, but can be injection molded. When linked with potentially thousands of similar turbines mounted on frames, they can generate as much power as the traditional, 160- foot-tall steel and fiberglass windmills lined up at commercial wind farms, he said.
Think hundreds of plastic pinwheels, all connected and gathering power.
As Gambarota sees it, wind energy technology is in the same place the automobile was before Henry Ford introduced mass production and turned the car from an expensive luxury to something available to the masses.
``Renewable energy is following the same process and the same logic,'' he said. ``At one point or another, it will have to be mass- produced.''
Gambarota, a chemist by education who learned plastic molding from 15 years' representing Chinese toy makers to European buyers, said his background in product development and manufacturing led him to look for something cheaper than traditional wind power, with its 65- foot blades made from glass-fiber-reinforced plastic.
``Maybe that's why I bring something new and different, because my first priority is production, and that means costs,'' he said. ``The only way I know to control costs is mass production.''
His turbines, he said, have an initial capital investment of about US$100 per kilowatt, compared with US$600 for coal plants and US$1,500 for traditional wind turbines. Traditional wind turbines make power for about US$0.10 per kilowatt hour; he projects his turbines will do it for one-tenth of that.
Plus, those larger turbines require wind speeds in the neighborhood of 30 feet per second. His smaller plastic ones, he said, need winds of only about 5 feet a second to start working. And they offer flexibility in design - a long row of them could lie on top of a hill or a building.
But the technology remains untested in a commercial setting. He has built prototypes by hand at Hong Kong University, where he's enlisted several engineering professors as partners in his venture, but his versions so far have been made with acrylic. He said he's confident, but needs to see how the injection molded models work.
Once the molds are built this fall, he plans to test them from the top of one of the university's skyscrapers overlooking Hong Kong's Victoria Harbor.
Other technical decisions remain unresolved. For example, he's not sure what plastic to use. He said he's considered nylon because of its strength and flexibility, but wants the turbines to be relatively transparent, so as not to be eyesores.
It's not his only foray into renewable energy.
Hong Kong's media has closely followed his attempts to make a machine that can use the motion of ocean waves to generate electricity.
He's launched several prototypes in the waters around Hong Kong, but one disappeared and another malfunctioned and drifted away. The technology for that device is more complicated, so he's looking for investors who understand the energy business.
Gambarota clearly has a tinkerer's mind. He developed a lollipop with a small plastic tube that lights up the inside of the candy, and he said the company that makes it has sold millions of them worldwide.
He admits to first getting interested in chemistry as a teenager in France because, he said, ``I was making explosives for fun ... I wanted to boom everything.''
Now, though, his work is much more sedate, as he greets a visitor and shows off his two home-based workshops, including some of the early windmill prototypes.
Whether that early fascination with explosives proves prophetic - and Gambarota's work brings some creative destruction that changes the power industry - is hard to know. But he's hopeful for an impact.
``We are lucky we are in a business where basically nothing exists,'' he said. ``That means I don't have to compare with other existing techniques, because there is none. No matter what I do, even if it's not as good as, it will be cheaper.''