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The University of Southampton

Traditional water wheels could help generate tomorrow's electricity

Published: 20 February 2006

Traditional water wheels could play a part in increasing the use of sustainable energy, according to a University of Southampton researcher.

Dr Gerald Müller from the University's School of Civil Engineering and the Environment is convinced that old-fashioned hydropower can be relevant to the 21st century. He believes water wheel designs can be refined to significantly increase their efficiency to that of modern turbines used in big hydro-electric projects.

"Turbines are commonly used where there is a considerable flow of water but research has shown they can kill or injure fish. They are also very expensive," said Dr Müller. "On the other hand, water wheels can generate sufficient power from smaller rivers to provide the electricity needs of individuals or small communities. Their contribution could be very valuable in future years."

Water wheels reached a peak of popularity during the industrial revolution. Although steam engines had been invented by this time, they were too expensive for widespread use. Even in 1925, there were 25,000 water wheels in operation in Germany. It was only the development of cheap electric motors that put paid to water wheels as a common source of power.

Dr Müller is currently advising a company in Welwyn Garden City on installing a water wheel. The Grade Two-listed Lemsford grain mill, owned by Ramblers Holidays, was built in 1863 on a site first used in 1700. A German company has supplied a steel-framed wooden wheel, modelled on a late nineteenth century design. Talks are underway to supply electricity to a generating company via a nearby substation.

Tony Lock, General Manager, Finance at Ramblers Holidays added: "We are very excited about the installation of the water wheel at Lemsford and the impact that it will make. From an environmental perspective we hope that it will power most of our office requirements providing both financial benefit to us and playing a small part in reducing environmental damage by adding to the pool of renewable energy sources. It also provides a great focus to our building, the glazed viewing panels making it visible from all three floors of the mill."

However, Dr Müller warns that the renaissance of small-scale hydropower is in danger because the technology is being ignored. "People think that water wheels are irrelevant and outdated. There are few grants available to research this further. But I'm arguing water wheels could make a useful contribution to the generation of sustainable energy for small communities or individual companies in years to come. We need to have a debate about where our power will come from in future."

His work is being supported by University colleague Dr Paul Kemp and PhD student James Senior.

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