One of the things that makes plastics an interesting industry to watch is that it remains friendly to an inventor with an idea and not huge sums of money. That's where Lucien Gambarota, a French citizen and Hong Kong resident with a background in product design and development for the toy industry, comes in.
Frustrated with his home electric bill one sweltering summer month in Hong Kong, he started tinkering in his workshop and came up with the idea for a new type of wind turbine that uses very small blades made of plastic. On March 15, Gambarota's company, Motorwave Ltd., unveiled the product.
It may sound simple, but Gambarota said plastic allows for a design with some important advantages over wind turbines out there now.
First, his blades - no more than 25 centimeters in diameter - are small enough to fit easily on a building rooftop. The design allows for flexibility in the footprint and number of turbines. Second, the small turbines can generate electricity in relatively low wind speeds of 2 meters a second (about 6½ feet), less than a third of what's needed for more traditional wind turbines.
And since they can be injection molded from polypropylene, Gambarota said they are affordable to the mass market. He says it means a 1-square-meter area (10.8 square feet) of his turbines can generate enough electricity in average wind speeds in cities to power a TV for seven hours a day. I don't know enough about energy markets or wind-turbine technology to say if Gambarota's idea will be a commercial success, or if he's a Don Quixote-like figure tilting at plastic windmills. But the idea has an instinctive appeal to me living in China, where unchecked industrialization has given the country 16 of the 20 most-polluted cities on the planet (according to the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute).
But putting aside that very serious point, spending a few hours discussing all this with Gambarota at his Hong Kong apartment, with his talkative young children underfoot, was a nice reminder of one of the real creative strengths of plastic - it's a versatile and cheap material that can allow one person to pursue an idea.
Here's a guy, a chemist, who learned about plastic molding while working for 15 years as a manufacturers' rep for Chinese toy factories. He's clearly a tinkerer: He developed a well-selling toy lollipop that lights up as a kid eats it, and he garnered attention in a March 1 Wall Street Journal story for his work rewiring exercise machines in a Hong Kong gym to harness energy created by workouts.
He's invested about US$120,000 into the plastic windmills, and also sees benefits from them in bringing electricity to remote spots like Mongolia, where it can be tough to string wires.
At a time when governments are asking good questions about whether we should use less plastic packaging or switch to more renewable polymers, a mass-market wind turbine made from polymers is a reminder that there's still a role for creative uses of plastic in attacking environmental problems.
Steve Toloken is a Plastics News correspondent based in Hong Kong.