The small streams running through the mountains of West Virginia are unassuming, but they could have a powerful effect on the future of clean energy and the economics of the state.
Recent West Virginia University graduate Josh Matheny is hoping to do just that by transitioning his research into an innovative solution that will help local businesses and grow environmentally friendly energy sources in the states.
Growing up on the family farm in Monongalia County Matheny, who graduated with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering this past spring, developed a love for machinery, watching it work and seeing the good that can come from it. He also saw first-hand the day-to-day challenges and frustrations that can arise in running a small business, which motivated him to develop innovative ideas and products.
He also realized he wanted to become an engineer and use his innovative talents to make a difference in his state and in the environment.
“I decided engineering would allow me to have a positive impact on the world by designing solutions to problems people and businesses have – and hopefully make things better for them,” said Matheny.
As a graduate student, Matheny and his advisor Professor Drew Nix were attracted to the potential of generating clean energy from the flowing water of small streams.
At the same time, Matheny worked at Preston Machine, Inc., a Kingwood-based machining business. He wanted to build a knowledge base that the company could use to further develop their own micro-hydro turbine design. Together, these ideas became the focus of Matheny’s master’s degree thesis.
The objective of his research was to measure the performance of two micro-hydro turbine impellers. Micro-hydro turbine systems produce low-cost electricity. Inside the turbine, an impeller is the main component. It rotates based on the pressure of the flow of the water. Matheny’s research will lead to design improvements which increase the manufacturability and cost-effectiveness of the impellers, improving their performance and the viability of future “green” systems.
“When a micro-hydro turbine system is installed, it produces electricity without the emission of carbon dioxide and other pollutants associated with fossil fuels,” Matheny stated. “Such systems have minimal environmental impact because they do not require a dam and can outperform other renewable energy technologies if installed in the right conditions.”
The project could create a future product line for Preston Machine, which Matheny said would be rewarding for him.
“Successfully marketing and installing micro-hydro turbines in West Virginia would achieve my goal of making the world a better place in a small way,” Matheny said. “That would be very satisfying to me as an engineer.”
Matheny started turning his ideas into reality when he pitched his micro-hydro turbine design as a “commercializable project” at the 2013 TransTech Energy Business Development Conference in Morgantown.
TransTech Energy at WVU seeks to promote investment in and nurturing of new companies and projects that can provide real solutions to energy, environmental and economic development challenges amidst the current decline of the coal industry.
Matheny credits the conference with giving him the experience of looking at his product through the eyes of an investor or as a potential customer.
“I met a lot of great people at TransTech who were kind enough to share their business knowledge and guidance. They have continued to help me develop the project several years after I made the pitch,” he said. “I think only positive things can come from presenting a pitch at the TransTech conference.”
After the conference, Matheny built a test stand that was used in his research project to evaluate the performance of the turbine impeller design and pinpoint where it can be improved. He obtained turbine efficiencies as high as 85 percent with maximum power production of almost 30 horsepower. A turbine continuously producing 30 horsepower could produce approximately 15,000 kilowatt hours of energy per month – enough electricity to power 10 to 12 average households.
The next step for Matheny and Preston Machine is to build a complete prototype to learn more about the challenges of manufacturing the system and to further improve the design.
“Finding the right situation to build that prototype will be the next step,” said Matheny. “That’s the beginning of actually making the turbines commercially viable.”
Matheny’s future plans include staying in West Virginia to develop micro-hydro turbine systems for Preston Machine and interested customers. He believes that West Virginia has the terrain and water resources to support operation of a significant number of such turbines.
A customer of Preston Machine, Biomost Inc. of Mars, Pennsylvania, recently pioneered an idea to use micro turbines in flow from acid mine drainage ponds.
“This is a big issue in West Virginia, and incorporating turbines can make treating acid mine drainage sustainable by offsetting the cost of treatment with sale or use of the generated electricity,” said Matheny.
He also believes the turbines could provide a boost to local economies. “With so many potential end users in the state, it would provide a way for West Virginia residents and businesses with access to small streams or running water sources to generate income from a resource that would otherwise only be used for recreation or its aesthetic value.”
Following the completion of his master’s degree, Matheny began working at the WVU Center for Alternative Fuel, Engines and Emissions, the lab that discovered elevated levels of emissions in Volkswagen diesel vehicles. He also continues to work part-time as an engineer at Preston Machine.