Scale Up

Paddlewheel at Arizona State University Research Center

Paddlewheel at Arizona State University Research Center

A.I.M. Interview: Waterwheel Factory’s Bob Vitale

October 9, 2012, by David Schwartz
AlgaeIndustryMagazine.com

Bob Vitale in front of the Scissors Paddlewheel

Bob Vitale in front of the Scissors Paddlewheel

About 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.

Touchstone Research Lab showing the scissor wheel design

Touchstone Research Lab showing the scissor wheel design

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.

Testing a paddlewheel design in the lab

Testing a paddlewheel design in the lab

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?

Monitoring station at Texas A&M Research Center

Monitoring station at Texas A&M Research Center

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.

More Like This…

HOME Algae Industry Jobs

Copyright ©2010-2012 AlgaeIndustryMagazine.com. All rights reserved. Permission granted to reprint this article in its entirety. Must include copyright statement and live hyperlinks. Contact editorial@algaeindustrymagazine.com. A.I.M. accepts unsolicited manuscripts for consideration, and takes no responsibility for the validity of claims made in submitted editorial.

From The A.I.M. Archives

— Refresh Page for More Choices
Heliae, SCHOTT North America and Arizona State University (ASU) have announced a partnership to bring Heliae’s algae production technology to ASU’s algae testbed facility...
University of Adelaide researchers are using nanotechnology and the fossils of diatoms to develop a novel chemical-free and resistance-free way of protecting stored grain...
The University of Greenwich is leading a €10m international project, called the ‘D-Factory,’ to build a biorefinery to develop the microalga Dunaliella as a sustainable r...
Algatechnologies (“Algatech”), Israel, has announced a more than 100% expansion of its production capacity of AstaPure® brand natural astaxanthin. This doubling of capaci...
Libourne, France-based Fermentalg, an industrial biotechnology company that specializes in the production of oils and proteins derived from microalgae, has completed a su...
Students from three Arizona universities will demonstrate their algae research projects at an Innovation Showcase May 1, in Arizona State University’s Sun Devil Fitness C...
Algenist®, Solazyme’s anti-aging skincare brand featuring microalgae, has announced its launch in Nordstrom locations throughout the United States. The launch into Nordst...
Algal oil represents one of the significant segments within the omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) ingredients market. Specifically, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is ...
In Phys.Org, Yu Yonehara notes the breakthrough research from the Tokyo Institute of Technology on the connection between early marine algae and the development of terres...
Four years after the first optimistic calculations, the experimental cultivation of algae at Wageningen University in the Netherlands appears to be meeting expectations. ...
Kazuaki Nagata reports from Japan that while the Fukushima nuclear disaster has prompted vigorous discussion about alternative energy in Japan, there is a lack of a paral...
Kyae Mone Win reports in the Myanmar Times that spirulina has been harvested from Twin Daung lake in Sagaing’s Bu Ta Lin township for over a decade, but climate change an...
Algae manufacturer Cyanotech Corporation has announced implementing three major initiatives to improve Astaxanthin production at their Kailua Kona, Hawaii-based cultivati...
In an effort to propel the algae industry forward, the Algae Testbed Public Private Partnership (ATP3) offers a series of hands-on specialized workshops suited for partic...
Following a request from the European Commission, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (NDA) was recently asked t...
Matthew Carr was recently named executive director of the Algae Biomass Organization (ABO), the leading trade association for the algae industry. His presence will soon b...
Expanding from its initial work in algal biofuels, General Atomic’s (GA’s) Advanced Biological Processes team has focused on the rising need for food globally, specifical...
SCHOTT AG, of Mitterteich, Germany, and Algatechnologies Ltd. (Algatech), based at Israel’s Kibbutz Ketura, have signed an R&D agreement to strengthen their partnersh...