Shark Inspires A Better Water Turbine

A Michigan man, taking a design cue from nature, might be onto a better way to harness the power of rivers. The man is Anthony Reale, a product-design student. The piece of nature that inspired him is the basking shark, a giant fish that swims with its mouth open, catching food by filtering water through distinctive gills that ring its neck. The device he created: the Strait Power turbine.

Reale’s great insight was that the basking shark’s filter-feeding process compresses and accelerates water flow out of its gills. If he could mimic that, he theorized, he could produce a more efficient hydrokinetic generator. He hatched the design and built the twin-bladed turbine for his senior project at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies – an extraordinary 711 hours of work – and tested it at the University of Michigan’s Hydrolab, which recently shared the Strait Power story.

Strait Power hydro turbine, Michigan, basking shark

image via Michigan Engineering/Strait Power

And it reportedly worked, improving the efficiency of a single turbine blade by 40 percent. University of Michigan researchers who run remote research camps in Alaska are now interested in taking Strait Power there for testing. They hope to be able to use the device in the fast-flowing rivers they camp near, instead of gasoline or propane generators.

As for Reale – who blogs at http://straitpower.blogspot.com/ – he is going forward with his idea. He has a patent pending, along with a wide range of variants on the basic design for different uses.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.