An Israeli start-up is on the brink of harnessing cheap, efficient energy.
By MEREDITH PRICE LEVITT
When mechanical engineer Nimrod Eitan first presented the gear technology he invented to Gideon Ziegelman, a hi-tech and alternative energy entrepreneur, he imagined its application would be suitable for car or motorcycle engines. Ziegelman had other ideas.
"No viable gear technology existed for high torque environments, and when I saw this, I knew it had the potential to solve a critical problem for wind turbines," he explains.
Although the first wind machines were used as early as 200 BCE in Persia, wind turbines (large, bladed machines that convert wind into electricity) were not invented until the late 1800s, and modern wind turbines really began to develop only about 25 years ago in Europe.
The industry remains relatively young and has not yet taken full advantage of its potential, which Ziegelman also sees as a unique opportunity.
"If a small company in Israel tried to compete with car makers, they'd have to face the huge giants already entrenched in the United States, Germany and Japan," he points out. Yet, if that same technology can be used to solve a problem for wind turbines in a space with relatively few competitors, the proposition suddenly becomes much more attractive.
In recent years, the wind turbine industry has seen tremendous expansion. In 2007, for example, $37 billion was spent to install wind turbines globally. In 2008, that figure jumped to $50 billion.
"It's like an S-curve," says Ziegelman, "it starts out slowly, matures rapidly and then tapers off again."
These days, energy produced by wind turbines is second only to natural gas and has four major drives. First, the price of the wind turbine power competes with traditional sources of electricity, and in places with naturally strong winds, the cost of electricity from wind turbines can even be lower. Second, developing wind energy is attractive to many Western countries because it reduces their geopolitical dependence on problematic countries, such as Russia (natural gas) and Saudi Arabia (oil). Third, it stimulates local economies by creating jobs for people who install and operate wind turbines. Fourth, due to climate change, there is a vigorous interest in creating electricity that does not pollute the environment.
"Israel has a huge opportunity in the alternative energies sector because it's still a relatively young industry and there are no clear world leaders yet," adds Ziegelman, who has been in the field for the last 10 years. He co-founded a mutual fund for alternative energy and then did a start-up focusing on electricity storage solutions for the wind energy market before founding IQ Wind with Eitan in 2007.
How does IQ Wind's innovative gear technology solve a critical problem for both existing and future wind turbines?
The core problem for every wind turbine is the same: Wind hits the blades at variable speeds, which makes it a changing energy source, but electricity grids demand constant energy that does not fluctuate.
The Danish solution to this problem, which Ziegelman likens to using a hammer, forces the blades to work at the speed of the electricity grid. "It works," he says, "but they lose about 20 percent of their efficiency because they force the turbines to move at a fixed speed." The second solution requires the installation of huge electrical devices that are expensive and inefficient. These machines convert the variable energy to the electrical grid.
According to Ziegelman, IQ Wind's elegant mechanical technology has two main applications. The first is to convert old fixed speed turbines by removing their gear box and installing new ones that allow the turbines to convert variable wind speeds into electricity and improve their efficiency. The upgrade is relatively inexpensive as companies will see a return on their investment after two years.
The second application for IQ Wind's technology is to manufacture new wind turbines using its technology.
"We're going to compete head-to-head with the old wind turbines, and our solution is 20% cheaper and 5% more efficient than the best wind turbines out there today," says Ziegelman, who is discussing potential partnerships with companies like GE and Siemens.
In June 2009, the first small-scale wind turbine will be installed in Israel, with larger wind turbines to follow a few months later.
The global potential for this technology is enormous. Ever since T. Boone Pickens, the billionaire oilman, started making headlines in the US early in 2008 for his passionate endorsement of wind energy, more people have started to contemplate its possibilities.
"In the United States today, wind power generates 1% of the nation's electricity, but it has the potential to generate over 20% of the nation's electricity," says Ziegelman. "This is a huge advantage because it can permit the US to use natural gas for its cars and omit the need to import so much oil."
Although Ziegelman and Eitan say their gear technology has implications in many other industries, for now they are concentrating on wind turbines. "You can't spread yourself too thin or you dilute your strength," says Ziegelman. "Focus is power."
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