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In December 2004, Imad Mahawili was vacationing with his family in Florida when an earthquake near Indonesia triggered a tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people. Watching the destruction of poor villages in Asia and Africa on TV, Mahawili was reminded of the poverty he experienced as a child growing up in Baghdad in the 1950s. "It was heartbreaking," he says.
Mahawili, 62, was then executive director of the Michigan Alternative & Renewable Energy Center (Marec), a nonprofit that helps entrepreneurs launch green startups. But the tsunami had given Mahawili, a serial entrepreneur who holds a PhD in chemical engineering and had sold two technology companies, an urge to build something that could benefit the poor. In 2006 he started working on an idea for a small, inexpensive wind turbine that could provide electricity to rural communities. Three years later he left Marec to found WindTronics in Muskegon, Mich.
In most turbines, wind spins a three-blade system, which turns a vertical shaft that connects to an electrical generator at its base. In contrast, Mahawili's design looks like a giant bicycle wheel with 20 nylon spokes. At the outer end of each spoke is a magnet and stationary coil, which generate electricity. Because the electricity is created in the blades themselves and not by spinning a heavy shaft, Mahawili's design can capture two to three times as much energy as traditional models, according to Honeywell International (HON). The conglomerate tested Mahawili's design as part of a worldwide search for energy-efficient turbines, and it "really stood out," says Tony Uttley, a Honeywell vice-president. The turbine is small and light enough to sit on a roof; five could power an average U.S. household.
C.P. van Dam, director of the California Wind Energy Collaborative research center at the University of California at Davis, has studied the design and says he doubts it captures as much energy as advertised, "at least as it's presented to us right now." The marketplace will get a chance to decide when Honeywell begins selling the device under its own brand later this year. Each turbine costs $5,795 plus installation, and Mahawili hopes Honeywell's global reach will help persuade governments to purchase it for rural towns.
The youngest of eight children of an Iraqi bureaucrat, Mahawili scored high enough on national exams in 1960 to enter an exclusive Baghdad high school run by Boston College Jesuits. He excelled at the school and in 1968 left to study in England, where he earned his doctorate at Imperial College London. He came to the U.S. in 1974 to work for DuPont (DD). His guiding principle through it all: "survival through education and performance."
Son of an Iraqi bereaucrat; grew up in Baghdad
The "heartbreaking" 2004 tsunami
A small wind turbine that Honeywell will sell for $5,795