As the world is now painfully aware, keeping nuclear plants near the ocean is a devil's bargain. Most power plants, regardless of fuel, need massive amounts of water for cooling the steam used to turn the turbine generator. When things go wrong, like the leakage of contaminated water into the Pacific at Japan's Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant, the consequences can be harrowing. Fernando Fischmann, a Chilean real estate developer and biochemist, may have a way to use advanced swimming pool filtration—yes, swimming pools—to cool power plants efficiently and eliminate their need to be close to natural bodies of water.
Fischmann's company, Crystal Lagoons, designs huge, swimmable lagoons for resorts around the world, including a 19-acre creation in Algarrobo, Chile, which holds the Guinness record for world's largest swimming pool. Using what he has learned at his Santiago company, Fischmann believes his technology can handle the millions of gallons that pump through a typical large power facility every day. About 40 percent of the electricity generated in the U.S. comes from plants that draw from nearby lakes, rivers, or oceans—and spit heated water back, which disrupts aquatic life near the outflow pipes. That's one reason plants can be so ecologically damaging, even without a Fukushima-scale disaster. The water going into a plant also must be clean to avoid fouling its equipment.
Fischmann's filtration system uses ultrasound to agglomerate waste particles, simplifying their removal. A computerized injector tracks algae and bacteria growth and squirts chemicals whenever it detects buildup. "You have the same quality of water as a swimming pool with 100 times less chemicals," Fischmann says. Some plants have used massive cooling ponds for decades; Fischmann says his system will reduce the size required, which means they'd be cheaper to build and maintain. U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist Tim Diehl says Fischmann's system could work at hundreds of plants in the U.S. "Clearly you could retrofit his technology," he says. "It's not just for new construction."
Fischmann, who studied biochemistry at the Universidad de Chile in 1981, didn't use that training until 1997, when a resort project he was working on ran into trouble. Its main attraction, a six-acre swimming lagoon, turned green with algae. Fischmann set up a lab in a vacant resort building and devised Crystal Lagoons' cleaning system. He says his 60-employee firm is profitable; Boston Consulting Group valued it at $1.8 billion in 2009. He expects two big energy companies, which he won't name, to sign contracts within a year. "Those two companies were interested immediately," he says. "It took me much more time to find a real estate developer to be interested in the normal Crystal Lagoons pools."
Biochemistry graduate degree in 1981 from Universidad de Chile
Designed a kilometer-long, 19-acre pool, the world's largest
Power plants that needn't be near oceans or lakes to keep cool