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Alexander's Marvelous Machine
Page 3

In 1995, the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Office of Technology Innovation recommended that the Department of Energy consider supporting Gorlov's work. But that support did not materialize. Two years later, Gorlov conducted the first real-world test of his turbine in the Cape Cod Canal, where he experimented with models with two blades and three and with varying amounts of twist, looking for the design that would spin most efficiently in the current. Since then, in one pilot project after another, Gorlov has sought to prove to the world that his machine is commercially viable. The first projects were on a tiny scale. One early prototype powered a generator at the Tidewater Motel on the island of Vinalhaven, Maine; another was used to recharge batteries at a village in the Brazilian Amazon. Last summer, a turbine was lowered from a barge into the tides near Shelter Island, in Long Island Sound. The most substantial feasibility project in the United States, supported by a $500,000 grant from the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust Fund, was a three-month trial near Amesbury, Massachusetts, in which four Gorlov Helical Turbines were submerged in the Merrimack River.

Considering the limited scale of these projects, Gorlov can count himself lucky that the Republic of Korea is facing an energy crisis. In 1999, an article on his turbine appeared in the Financial Times, and South Korea's National Assembly invited him to deliver a presentation on his invention. There were good reasons for the interest: South Korea's energy demands are growing at about 4 percent each year, and aside from a single natural gas field and some reserves of very low-grade coal, the country has no fossil fuels. To meet the burgeoning need for electricity, it relies heavily on imports and is planning to build several more nuclear power plants in the next decade. (It already has 19.)

However, the Korea Peninsula also happens to be home to some very fast-moving water. Soon after Gorlov's speech, the government pledged 40 billion won ($34 million) to develop a free-flow hydropower project driven by the Gorlov Helical Turbine.

On March 19, 2002, the Korean Ocean Research and Development Institute lowered the first Gorlov turbine into the Uldolmok Strait, a tidal channel that runs between the western coast of the Korea Peninsula and Jindo Island. The strait is famous for its roiling tidal currents, which can rip through the corridor at 12 knots. Gorlov showed me a low-resolution video of the event on his laptop computer. During a lull in the current, workers struggle to get the turbine in the water before the tides come in. Just as it is secured, the murky brown water begins to surge and the blades start to move. Soon they are spinning wildly, cutting up the water, sending frothy chop into the air. Offscreen, workers shout with excitement.

Four months later, the institute hooked up the turbine to a generator. A second video shows the turbine spinning in the night. A light shines over it, using electricity produced by the tides of the Uldolmok Strait. It's hard not to compare the event with one that took place in Appleton, Wisconsin, in 1882. On September 30 of that year, H. F. Rogers, a paper magnate and Edison supporter who had built the world's first commercial hydroelectric plant dam on the Fox River, used his Vulcan Street plant to produce enough electricity to light a single house. It was reported that "men jumped up and down and screamed like school boys."

Last fall, South Korea commenced the second phase of the project, when it installed a 15-foot turbine in the strait. During this phase, it hopes to produce up to 1,000 kilowatts of power that will be sent to Jindo Island, with a population of some 40,000. If that goes well, the government plans to install thousands of Gorlov's underwater turbines, hoping they can harness from Uldolmok and the surrounding oceanic streams up to 3,600 megawatts of power -- about equal to the output of four nuclear power plants.

The success of the Korean project may largely determine the commercial future of the Gorlov Helical Turbine. Experts point out that the underwater environment is harsh and unpredictable, full of sediment, corrosive agents, and unforeseen events. "How long will the equipment hold up?" asks Joseph Sayer, a project manager at the New York State Energy Research and Development Association. "What happens if there's a storm? What about a log?" And of course each body of water is unique.

Yet another issue must be addressed if environmentalists are to embrace Gorlov's turbine. Richard Roos-Collins, a senior attorney with the Natural Heritage Institute in San Francisco and an enthusiastic backer of hydrokinetic technology, acknowledges that "if it turns fish into sushi, then it's got the same problem as wind power." (For example, the windmills at California's Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area kill up to 1,300 birds of prey a year.) Gorlov insists his turbines will create a pressure barrier that will keep fish away from the blades, but he has yet to prove it. Two summers ago, Verdant Power placed monitoring devices on a single turbine and saw fish swimming around it. But what happens if fish encounter a whole field of whirling turbines?

None of these questions has stopped Gorlov from envisioning a world spinning with helical turbines, and that is a good thing. He imagines thousands of his turbines anchored near remote waterside villages, providing electricity to areas where there is no grid. He imagines pods of them linked together in streams and rivers. Most ambitiously, he imagines floating power farms that would harness the kinetic energy of the world's major ocean currents. "The Gulf Stream contains enough energy for all of North America," he says. Imagine a block of 656 Gorlov Helical Turbines anchored off the coast of Florida, where they could not only capture the enormous energy potential of the Gulf Stream, which carries some 80 million cubic meters past Miami's front door every day, but also produce hydrogen through the electrolysis of ocean water.

Concerns about money seem to irk Gorlov. "Perhaps it's reality that people first tend to compare the cost of installation and manufacturing, but think about it: We're not poisoning our air, our water, our environment." Who can argue with that?

Who Owns This River?
Who Owns This River?
Europe's Black Triangle Blooms

Gorlov Helical Turbine

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Illustration: Jim Kopp

OnEarth. Spring 2005
Copyright 2005 by the Natural Resources Defense Council