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Putting nature's power to work

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By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

Harvesting the power of nature with a lightweight, portable, clean electricity generator could cause a surge of retail sales among campers and farmers, according to an academic consultant marketing study.

First, Christopher Thomas of Woodlawn has to figure out a way to get his patented hydroelectric generator prototype through financing and into production.

He has sought help for compact water and wind turbines from local economic developers, which in turn led to the market assessment by a group from Pamplin College of Business at Virginia Tech.

The hydroelectric invention for the company he's calling Nature's Power has generated a positive response from the consulting team of Aaron Kroll, Matt Heaton, Alex Spector, Anthony Sickal and Keith Garber.

Thomas has carved his prototype's paddle wheels out of foam and uses big plastic cooking spoons as paddles that allow the flow of water to set those wheels in motion to generate electricity.

Thomas also installed lights on the machine that glow when the wheel turns to show that the kinetic energy has been converted to electricity.

With the prototype sitting on the conference table in the Crossroads Institute recently, Thomas demonstrated how well the model operates.

He spun the wheel, lighting it up briefly.

The turbine stores the energy in a 12-volt battery.

The idea involves putting the contraption in a stream or creek, with a cable across the body of water holding it steady.

As the paddle wheel turns, a camper can tap electricity needed to run a lamp or another device that might be needed in a remote location that otherwise would be without a power source.

Can people easily move the generator from place to place? the students asked.

Yes, answered Thomas, who carried the device to the conference room by himself that day.

The prototype probably weighs 20 pounds right now, but ideally some of that weight could be shed in further refining of its construction or by making it out of molded plastics, he said.

Thomas originally tested his idea out while camping in woods on his grandfather's land in Woodlawn. He lit a cabin the first time by attaching a 50-foot utility cord to the generator in the nearby stream.

This could also have practical applications for farmers and for disaster relief, he believes. A report by the consultants agrees on all points.

"Camping is a huge market that the hydroelectric generator will hit," the report notes. "People are always in a dire need of some sort of power for any number of things while they are camping.

"Whether it would be for safety or convenience, it is necessary."

The rise of greater environmental awareness and the need for power that does not cause air pollution makes this a good time for Thomas' device to surface, they said.

The consultants also found Thomas won't have to deal with a lot of competition from similar products already on the market.

The number of people camping continues to rise, the report quotes figures by the National Sporting Goods Association. Last year, the number of campers in the United States increased by about 2.6 million people.

"The goal is to provide campers and RVs a source of power, free energy, instead of using non-renewable energy such as gas or propane," the consultants note.

Two different size models have been conceived to appeal to both hikers and owners of recreational vehicles, the report says.

"The smaller model will allow hikers to walk around trails without tugging along a huge generator," it says. "Hikers will want to use their GPS or their cell phone so they will not get lost.

"Batteries do not last forever, so this product will be a hiker's dream to own," it continued. "All you have to do is set it in some running water and energy will be there for the hiker's disposal."

The larger model could power up the appliances in an RV, like a refrigerator.

Farmers and ranchers would likely have the land and the access to a stream to put a hydro generator to good use for electric fences and the like.

An additional advantage for the device: all the power that comes off it is free, the report points out.

Nor does it take installing power poles and utility lines to take advantage of that electricity.

One of the challenges in providing disaster relief involves a lack of electricity, and Thomas can see his generator coming in handy during those kinds of situations.

Again, the consultants agreed.

"The generator will be a quick and easy alternative for the failed power source," they wrote. "It can run for as long as needed until there is a new, more permanent power plant."

Capital will be needed to get Nature's Power turning out its products, and the consultants listed several possibilities for that — government funding, “angel” investors, venture capitalist funds, forming a partnership.

Thomas does not want to seek a loan to fund the project. "If people believe in it, it'll happen," he said during the meeting about the potential product.

But the consultants recommend that Thomas "offer up his business for acquisition by larger firms."

A larger firm could afford to take the prototype to a more refined stage, better for mass production and distribution, they wrote. This strategy would also reduce the risk Thomas faces if he attempted to stay in business for himself.

The target market has promise. No other such product has hit the stores yet; and Thomas holds the patent to the devices — these are all good things, the consultants said.

In the meeting at Crossroads, the students sounded more viscerally enthusiastic:

"This is cool, man," one said. "This is great."

"Well, Chris has come a long way from concept to model," said Dallas Garrett, director of the Small Business Development Center, who sat in on the meeting.

The generator's main selling point is its portability, and Spector could see it on the shelves in a retail store. "Right next to the tents and the sleeping bags."

The generator will be on display at the Crossroads Institute.