The microturbine: little big green challenge

There microturbine wins the selection of Mind The Bridge Bridge Foundation: it's a miniaturized portable energy generator which is the size of a 1 euro coin but is worth much much more. The team leader of the Italian Institute of Technology group that created it, Emanuele Guglielmino, explains that it is micro but it is above all "green"Because electricity is generated by exploiting the pressure of a locally available fluid, thus avoiding a combustion process that is very harmful to the environment.

1) What is the Microturbine and what is it for, in short?

There microturbine is a miniaturized (its diameter is 14 mm) and integrated portable power generator inspired by turbomachinery technology.

It exploits the pressure of a fluid available locally in the environment or in an industrial plant, for example in a pipeline, transforming it into electricity available for use on site. There microturbine it falls into the category of so-called “energy harvesting” systems, from the English term “harvest” which means agricultural harvest.

Possible applications are in the gas industry, or in the railway or nautical field. A typical use is the power supply of sensors for the most varied uses, even in remote areas.

2) How does it work? How did the idea come about?

The physical principle is analogous to that of "macro" turbines, which are used in power generation plants and aircraft engines, but declined on the “micro” scale, solving the technical challenges associated with miniaturization.

The pressurized air is made to expand through specially shaped ducts and in this operation the energy of the pressurized fluid is transformed into mechanical energy that makes the turbine rotate. This energy, in turn, is converted into electrical energy via a generator.

Observing the market need during work experiences related to industrial turbines for Energy and Oil & Gas applications and railway systems, the idea of ​​developing a microturbine with the diameter of a one euro coin was born. I developed the project in the Italian Institute of Technology with my colleague Michele Focchi.

3) Why is it green?

Because electricity is generated by exploiting the pressure of a locally available fluid, not through a combustion process. This electricity can be profitably used to power sensors for the most varied uses, from environmental monitoring to the protection of the systems, thus improving the reliability of the latter.

The microturbine can replace a battery or recharge it in a remote location, thus reducing system maintenance costs and battery disposal activities.

4) What technologies are hidden in this portable energy generator?

There microturbine is a miniature, integrated and intelligent portable power generator.

Passing from an industrial turbine of several meters in diameter to a machine of a few millimeters in diameter, critical issues arise that are not present on the macroscale, so simply scaling a large machine would not have led to the desired results. To solve these technical problems, a unique (patented) innovation has been introduced, which involves the integration of the electrical and mechanical parts within a single component.

Furthermore, the microturbine it is equipped with a wireless card, so that the information measured by the sensors can be transmitted to a remote operator, for example through an SMS message directly on his mobile phone.

5) How much energy is it able to produce and average life?

It is able to produce up to 30 Watts with air at a pressure of about 1 atmosphere and has a useful life of 10 years, in other words it can run for 10 years without stopping and without the need for maintenance.

6) Some examples of situations in which to use the Microturbine?

A typical example is a gas pipeline, which passes through areas distant from inhabited centers, along which it is necessary to monitor any gas leaks with sensors or to manage its optimal operation, again using suitable sensors; or imagine a large plant or a railway line where the failure to power certain instruments can cause an interruption of the service. The sensors are typically powered by batteries connected to the instrument by copper cables, so that the batteries run out or damage the cables can cause an interruption of their operation which can impact on the operation of the system and which requires expensive maintenance interventions. in the field.

In these contexts the microturbine stands as an alternative energy generator.

7) What acknowledgments have you had for this idea? Further developments are being studied: future scenarios?

In June of this year the project was the winner of the selection of Mind The Bridge Foundation and this summer it was brought to the attention of investors and companies in California's Silicon Valley and recently won the "Start Cup Research - il Sole 24Ore”.

Evaluations of new applications and the definition of the most suitable business model for this technology are currently underway, to facilitate its widespread diffusion.

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