A.I.M. Interview: Waterwheel Factory’s Bob Vitale
October 9, 2012, by David Schwartz
bout 14 years ago, after a consulting background working with manufacturers on fabrication and processes, Bob Vitale met a man named Robert Hubbs who began mentoring him in the science of making traditional waterwheels, for things like restoration of old grist mills. “There was an interest out there for people to have waterwheels – not just for decorative uses, but for potential energy,” says Bob.
Soon Vitale and his mentor started building them as a full time business operation, Robert with the engineering background, and Bob with the modern fabrication background. “He had the science,” says Bob, “and I had the knowhow. And fortunately he taught me the science before he passed away in 2001.”
Vitale kept the company going and eventually decided to take Hubbs’ old world science and bring it into the 21st century, by applying CAD and lasers and other more current fabrication techniques to it.
Over the past 10 years Bob’s company has made some big wheels – up to 36 foot in diameter – and has equipped the water moving needs for a quickly growing number of algae open ponds around the world. But there’s much more to the story, he said as he filled us in a bit more on Waterwheel Factory’s past, present and future.
What was your first project with algae raceway ponds?
I got a phone call from General Atomics, back in 2007, from one of their developers who was working on an algae program for the military. He said, “Looks like you guys know how to make a wheel.” And that was the phone call that got us into the algae business. That project was actually the one that initiated the activities for Texas A&M, in their Pecos algae operation. General Atomics were the lead engineers in developing the algae process for them. That got us into Texas A&M and things just started growing from there.
What kind of differences were you finding in the requests you started getting from algae growers, versus the types of applications you had before that?
They are two very different markets. In one sense, water was powering the wheel, and in this case we are powering the wheel to move water. It’s pretty much a 180-degree difference in the approach to things. It was quite a learning curve making that switchover.
What are some of the difficulties you’ve addressed in the designs of your paddlewheels and how have they improved the functionality of ponds?
Basically, there are no two algae sites the same, as no two waterwheels are the same. Everybody has their own formula, their own recipe. So every situation is a little different in terms of the speed they want to run the water, the depth they want, the salinity of the water, the physical environment as far as how they want to take care of their growth processes. Everyone’s got their own preferences of how they want to do something, so there really are no “generic” waterwheels. From our beginning, everything was customized exactly. And from that we began learning the physics of being able to properly design wheels more efficiently.
When we started, we basically used a big 2×4, and then we began learning from there. Every day got to be a learning experience for us, so we learned things like how big to make the blades, what type of motors to use. And then I began looking at the actual blade design, and the best techniques for moving water. This was a couple of years of research, sending a wheel out and looking at how it worked for a client, and asking how can we make it better the next time?
There was a point that we began learning that we needed to put a bend in the blades of our wheels, and another point where we realized we were losing a lot of energy by using the traditional paddlewheel designs from the 1800s, which then got us into the scissor wheel design. Once we began into that arena and saw how much power we were saving, and how efficient the wheel became, we began fine-tuning it. And we now know – to the watt – what our power requirements are. We now know how to match our gearboxes, variable frequency drives, motors, how to make everything run smoothly and, just as importantly, how to build better products at lower costs. But it didn’t happen overnight!
What advice do you have for algae cultivators building open systems? What have you learned that they should know when they are designing their ponds?
We start by asking the client what is their basic premise. There are a lot of questions to understand on the basic premise before it becomes clear what the wheel requirements will be. Are we talking above ground, or a ditch? How much flexibility? The length and width of it? How are they adding and controlling the CO2? Have they considered their water quality monitoring and control issues? What type of control system is being used? Is it a test pond, research facility, production facility… There is a long list of questions that need to be asked, and then we can come up with some ideas and approaches for them to think about.
We’re always happy to give advice on what we’ve learned in the past.
You mention control systems. How does that interface with the waterwheel operations?
Over the last two years we have expanded the operations and scope of what we provide. With these changes we began monitoring the motor activities of the paddle wheels. Then we started setting up and developing water quality monitoring. From there we got into remote monitoring and process control, which got us into a very deep level of analysis. We began to expand and became a full service solution provider. From that, we’ve developed a network of companies and groups who we’ve built relationships and alliances with, so now when our clients ask us questions beyond what we do, we can connect them with experts for their particular situations.
We have also entered into the chemistry, and the quality control, as well as integrating the latest technology and operations control systems happening today. So we are able to work with people just starting out in cultivation and give them the most recent advances. We are now an internationally oriented, full service algae company, rather than a company just making paddlewheels.