Scientists to tap river currents to create clean energy

January 25, 2009 By Tina Lam

In the eerie green glow of flashing lasers in a darkened University of Michigan lab, a cylinder on springs moves methodically up and down in a giant tank as water flows over it, simulating a stream.

Whirligigs of illuminated particles form as the water pours over and under the cylinder in rhythmic patterns.

It looks simple, but it's revolutionary. This is VIVACE, a device to harness energy in slow-moving water currents across the globe and turn it into electricity.

VIVACE, which mimics the way fish swim in currents, is to debut next year in the Detroit River, powering the light for a new wharf between Hart Plaza and the Renaissance Center.

"Everybody is excited by this," said Mike Bernitsas, director of the Marine Renewable Energy Laboratory at the University of Michigan and inventor of the device.

It's one of a handful of new techniques - the first in more than 100 years - to use water to create clean, renewable energy. Since late November, the device has been filmed by Canada's Discovery Channel and discussed in science blogs, journals and the British Sunday Telegraph.

Unlike water-driven mills, turbines or dams, VIVACE doesn't require fast-moving water - most streams on the globe are slow-moving - and doesn't harm the environment.

VIVACE means "lively" on a musical score, but in this case is an acronym standing for Vortex-Induced Vibrations for Aquatic Clean Energy.

Bernitsas said he is thinking small so far, but someday an array of 1,000 cylinders offshore could produce the same energy as a large nuclear plant. A smaller grouping, as big around as a running track and as tall as a two-story building, could power 1,000 homes.

He came up with the idea four years ago and is developing it with a team of more than 30 students and researchers for commercial use. He patented it and started a company that hopes to manufacture it in Michigan in a few years.

In a stream, small eddies, or vortices, are created above and below an object the current hits. These vortices alternate, creating an up and down lift.

For example, a moored boat will bob up and down, and a stick caught underwater in a stream will quiver. Vortices in the air make your car antenna shake if you drive fast.

In air or water, the vibrations can be dangerous if not controlled.

Bernitsas, 57, has worked for two decades on ways to control these vibrations on offshore oil rigs.

"He was famous for how to kill vortex-induced vibrations," said U-M doctoral student Jim Chang, who works on VIVACE. "Now he'll be known for using them."

What Bernitsas envisions is groups of cylinders in frames on the ocean bed or in streams, perpendicular to currents. As the water flow hits the cylinders, it creates vortices that cause the cylinders to move up and down. That energy drives generators to make electricity, which goes through cables to the electrical grid on land. The size, number and placement of the cylinders depends on the body of water.

In the Detroit River, he plans 21 cylinders, each about 10 inches in diameter and 16 feet long, suspended in frames mid river on the U.S. side, which will create 3 kilowatts of energy around the clock to power lights on the dock.

This electricity is clean, infinitely renewable - "as long as the sun, the Earth and the moon move as they do now," he jokes - and doesn't harm the environment.

The cylinders will be far enough apart that fish can swim through them and deep enough to avoid ships, boats and fishing lines.

"It's a really creative project," said John Kerr, director of economic development for the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority.

VIVACE's electricity will be cheaper to produce than solar or wind energy - at 5.5 cents per kilowatt hour - and cheaper than coal plants if controlling their carbon emissions is accounted for, he said, because the devices are simple and require little maintenance.

The cylinders should go into the Detroit River within 12 to 14 months, followed by further testing.

Bernitsas said he can't jump up and down until then, since challenges remain.

"Once it's in the Detroit River, I'll be screaming, 'Eureka!' " he said.


(c) 2009, Detroit Free Press.
Visit the Freep, the World Wide Web site of the Detroit Free Press, at
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Explore further: Quantum leap for mass as science redefines the kilogramme

Related Stories

Energy tower for producing electricity set for Arizona

May 5, 2014

Solar Wind Energy Tower (SWET) with a focus on "solar wind downdraft tower" structures for producing electricity last month announced it got the green light from San Luis, Arizona, to develop such a tower in the city, which ...

October was 'bumper' month for Scotland's renewables

November 7, 2014

Any way you look at it— the solar PV panels, the solar hot water panels, the wind turbines—Scotland turned out to have a bumper month for renewables in October. Wind turbines generated an estimated 982,842MWh of electricity, ...

Tech startup bets on slow water to power our future

September 14, 2016

It's a perfect summer afternoon on the Saint Clair River, on the Canadian border just north of Detroit. Pleasure boats skim across the bright blue water as picnickers watch from the grassy bank. They don't notice the fat ...

Recommended for you

Uber filed paperwork for IPO: report

December 8, 2018

Ride-share company Uber quietly filed paperwork this week for its initial public offering, the Wall Street Journal reported late Friday.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

4 / 5 (2) Jan 25, 2009
The premises of high velocity (for other hydro-power sources) and somehow different are false. The energy available is precisely the change in momentum.

Conveniently, high velocity water has more momentum available to change.
3 / 5 (2) Jan 25, 2009
@Doug: True, but the problem is that most of the world's oceans are not fast moving. They are very very slow, with currents that affect the sea and the idea is to use that energy.
@Brandon: You you don't get why the design is simple right now do you?
5 / 5 (1) Jan 25, 2009
this system was first patented by victor schauberger in germany in the 30's as i recall.
not rated yet Jan 25, 2009
2.3 / 5 (4) Jan 26, 2009
Velanarris: No, Hydro-electric plants are "fancy water wheels". This is different.
1 / 5 (2) Jan 26, 2009
Yeah sweet...because hydro power will give us enough energy to power a 21st century world..../roll eyes.

Can we please just start handing out permits for nuclear plants already??
2.3 / 5 (3) Jan 26, 2009
yes. a wheel. with absolutely no torque. So.. not a wheel.
1.5 / 5 (2) Jan 26, 2009
yes. a wheel. with absolutely no torque. So.. not a wheel.

Torque is a measure of rotational force, typically down a shaft. How exactly do you think this is going to generate electricity without turning a generator?

The magical mother Gaia fairies are goiing to sprinkle eco-dust on it not only making the shaft turn, but also multiplying the power output about ten thousand times making it an ACTUALLY viable means of alternate energy.....

Ya big silly....
3 / 5 (1) Jan 26, 2009
Will this eventually stop the current or does the slow moving current derive from a self renewing source?
not rated yet Jan 27, 2009
so effectively your energy sources are the mass of the earth or the sun.

And the moon, of course. It is a combination of solar heating and tidal forces.
5 / 5 (1) Jan 29, 2009
yes. a wheel. with absolutely no torque. So.. not a wheel.

Torque is a measure of rotational force, typically down a shaft. How exactly do you think this is going to generate electricity without turning a generator?

I'm pretty sure the up-and-down motion of the device will create a changing magnetic/electric field, which creates current, which is transferred into the grid (in some phantom way! by using a wheel, perhaps?). Although I think my original suggestion of it not being a wheel was accurate. In fact, there must be some kind of rotational energy, I'm guessing from the chaotic vortexes in the water as it passes over the device. *shrugs*
not rated yet Jun 07, 2009

Sightly interesting but compared to turbines/rotor very ineff. Nor does the low water speed argument hold water ;^D
Turbines work in as little as 1 mph and below that nothing is going to be eff as it takes both torque and speed/rpm to make useful power.
Plus other reasons will make it fail I can't discuss.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.