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Lifelong inventor Johann Hoffmann has devised a way to harness river power to generate electricity without building expensive, environmentally destructive dams
Johann Hoffmann started patenting inventions to protect the environment while still a young boy in his native Austria. His first—created when he was just 14—was a buoy system to contain oil spills in the ocean, a system that's still being used today. Hoffman's work eventually led him to Brazil, where among other things, he developed a method to clean up mercury contamination from gold mining in the Amazon River. Now 61, the lifelong inventor is today working not only on keeping waterways clean but also on exploiting their enormous energy. The goal: to bring clean electricity to areas with little or no access to power. Hoffmann and his partners at CARE Electric Energia, based in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, have designed a turbine system that generates electricity from the natural flow of a river—without needing to build a dam. The system purports to be more efficient than traditional hydroelectric systems while at the same time being kinder to the environment. "It is not just a technological advance that has been achieved," says Hoffmann, "but a way of providing greater socioeconomic development for poor communities in developing countries and increasing clean energy." CARE Electric Energia is one of 26 companies named on Dec. 3 by the World Economic Forum as 2010 Tech Pioneers offering new technologies or business models that could advance the global economy and have a positive impact on peoples' lives. Free Passage for Fish and Boats
The Brazilian company's novel approach to hydroelectric power involves suspending structures in the middle of a flowing river that contain turbine blades, which spin not only from the horizontal flow of the water but also from vertical water pressure that builds up behind the installation. CARE Energy says this allows its turbines to generate power at 90% or more of the installed capacity of the generator, compared with productivity for traditional hydroelectric systems that rarely exceeds 60%. There are numerous other advantages. Fish channels are incorporated into the structure, allowing free passage up and downstream, and a throughway for small boats can be incorporated. This permits the river to maintain its ecological balance and often vital role in commerce and transportation. Unlike a dam, which causes silt and other material to build up behind it, the river continues to flow unimpeded past CARE Energy installations. And except for seasonal variations in the height of the river, the system can operate year-round—unlike dam-based systems, which typically must be throttled for months at a time during dry spells to allow the reservoir to replenish. The module nature of the turbine system also makes it easy to build in out-of