Beaver Dams Inspire Fish-Friendly Hydropower Design

July 15, 2005

Hydropower—electricity produced by flowing water—is an efficient form of renewable energy, but it often comes at a high cost to the environment and society. Now a technology inspired by beaver dams and airplanes may help eliminate these drawbacks.

Engineers with NatEl America, a Grapevine, Texas-based renewable energy company, have developed a new way to generate electricity using the dimensions of a beaver dam and the physics of fixed-wing aircraft.

"We need to figure out how to live with the acceleration [of water] due to gravity in a fashion which is comparable to how beavers have done that," said NatEl America's president, Daniel Schneider.

Beaver dams usually stand no more than ten feet (three meters) tall and integrate a series of steps into the slope. This is a height and design surmountable by migrating fish, Schneider said. The dams are also a natural part of the environment in many parts of the world.

In contrast, conventional hydropower technologies often rely on the construction of tall dams that flood the area behind them. This displaces animals and people, and it degrades the surrounding ecosystem, said Abe Schneider, Daniel's son and the company's vice president of engineering.

The height and spinning turbines of conventional hydropower dams also impede the passage of migrating fish, he added.

"With our approach, you can achieve the same energy capacity [as a conventional dam] but in a way that utilizes the energy in falling water in smaller increments, using much smaller dams," Abe said.

Linear HydroEngine

With a goal to have no more impact on a stream than a series of beaver dams, the Schneider's proprietary hydropower technology harnesses the energy of flowing water using the same engineering principles that allow fixed-wing aircraft to fly.

"Aviation deals with fluid flow just as hydropower deals with fluid flow, or fluid energy," Abe explained. "In aviation there are two major kinds of aircraft: helicopters and fixed-wing airplanes."

To travel from New York to London, people fly airplanes, not helicopters. However, the hydropower industry only uses the engineering concept analogous to a helicopter's rotors, Abe said.

NatEl's technology uses the engineering concept of fixed-wing aircraft to generate electricity. They call it the Linear HydroEngine, because its main moving parts travel in a predominantly linear fashion.

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