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Making Water Work For Metro Detroit

Necessity may not be the only mother of invention. Abundance of resources and engineers also creates innovation. There are indications that Michigan, once known as "water wonderland," is creating breakthrough and incremental development in water technology.

Just as you would expect innovation in arid regions where water is scarce, you might expect Michigan to be complacent and wasteful of its abundance. And until recently, it has been. However, researchers, engineers, and environmentalists are making significant strides in preserving and maximizing the energy, recreational, and commercial value of the state's water, viewed by some politicians as one of Michigan's competitive assets.

One of the most notable breakthroughs in water technology occurred in 2004 when Michael Bernitsas, Ph.D., professor of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering at the University of Michigan, reversed his thinking about suppressing natural vibrations that occur when a stationary object, like an oil rig, is placed in water currents. "In all disciplines of engineering… everyone tries to suppress vortex (whirling) vibrations. … It dawned on me that this is such a powerful phenomenon; (I could) do the opposite and enhance vortex vibration, correlate the flow rather than spoil it, and harness the energy that comes from the mechanical motion that results from vibration."

Bernitsas developed a hydrokinetic energy system that harnesses vortex-induced vibrations. Or in layman's terms: He's figured out a way to turn water currents into energy. This technology will be launched as a pilot project in the Detroit River in 2010 to power a wharf light and eventually be developed for ocean applications. To say that the potential commercial applications are impressive would be an understatement. Which is why Bernitsas' device will be produced commercially through Ann Arbor-based Vortex Hydro Energy within five years.

The potential for water innovation in this region "is almost limitless," says David Skiven, co-director of the Engineering Society of Detroit Institute, a think tank that promotes a Clean Water Initiative. The initiative focuses on technological innovation, resolving conflict over water resources, and regulatory change to promote a "blue economy." 

Historically, water has been a resource taken for granted in Michigan, Skiven says. "If you had it, you never bothered to worry about it. You never had a situation of having an abundance of engineers. … When you put that abundance with a need to innovate, a desire to innovate, and you look at the global needs when it comes to water, the potential to match that willingness of the engineers with the needs of society is fantastic."

With more than 60,000 engineers in Southeast Michigan, according to Skiven, the culture of manufacturing technology may be as much a determinant of "abundance" as fresh water itself. 

Pump Engineering, a Monroe company, developed and markets a turbocharged pump which converts discarded salt water from desalination systems into energy that powers them - hardly an innovation one would expect in a region known for its vast fresh water reserves. It's the idea and engineering know-how that drives innovation, notes COO Ariel Sacerdoti.

Necessity may have as much to do with economic survival as anything. "This part of the country, for many years, was too comfortable in applying the skills always in the same way. By nature, we don't try to do it the hard way if we can do it the easy way. It's only been in the last few years that people have started to really come to grips that it's not that easy anymore," Sacerdoti says.

The challenge is using existing engineering skills, "which are abundant and not very expensive," and applying them to situations in a unique and innovative way. "The market responds. When you have these kinds of expenses in electricity and you want to build a water plant, you fight for every last percent of efficiency. … It's the skills of the engineer that drives the fluid software that does the analysis. He can shave the last half point of the percentage. It's the difference between getting the order and losing it. What is that if not skills that we have here?"

In Southeastern Michigan, according to Sacerdoti, "there is a technological culture that is really of the highest level," he says. He likens this region to Northwest Italy/Torino (home of Fiat SpA) and auto center Stuttgart, Germany.

"That (engineering) skill, today, can be easily applied to many other niches. It remains, from a quality standpoint, just as good, but it applies itself to other markets, like water in this case. This, for me, is where the Southeast Michigan angle comes in. … The ticket is to take the skills that are abundant in this area and find a different way to apply them to the market place. That is, I think, the common thread of this recipe for success." It doesn't matter what area of technology, "you take the basic engineering and manufacturing skills – you can find plenty around here – and find a connection to another market."

That skill set doesn't just mean veteran engineers. There is plenty of opportunity for young, enterprising engineers as well, he says. "We just hired a young graduate from MSU. He's a genius." Sacerdoti adds, "We could hire, today, two or three young graduates if they are smart." 

Channeling the natural force of water to produce energy is one area, but arguably much of water management innovation in Michigan involves "protecting what we have or restoring what we've lost," says Mary Bohling, extension educator for Sea Grant Michigan, a collaboration between University of Michigan and Michigan State University. 

Sea Grant funds research and community education programs to promote sustainable coastlines. Bohling cites the area's public-private approach to environmental management that has achieved much of the restoration of the lower Detroit River. "A lot of times… there's a lot of finger-pointing. In our case there was some of that, but in Southeast Michigan we have started to work with those industries that tend to be the polluters and work with them to resolve the issue so that they reduce or eliminate the amount of pollution and assist in the clean-up."

An example was the clean up and restoration of the Black Lagoon in Trenton, the first contaminated site to be restored under the Great Lakes Legacy Act. "It wasn't just federal money and state money; there were private partners and non-profit groups coming together around a common goal to eliminate this toxic hot spot."

The industrial use of Michigan's water, particularly in the St. Clair and Detroit rivers, has created a kind of necessity that challenges environmental engineers to restore water quality and related habitat. "We have lived through waterborne disease epidemics, oil pollution, phosphorus pollution, toxic substances contamination, and invasive species," notes John Hartig, Refuge Manager, Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. The Refuge is credited with being the catalyst for restoring much of the Detroit River habitat. "Most of our efforts have historically been reactive, but now we are trying to be proactive and preventive." 

Michigan, he says, can be an international leader in water technology, especially from the perspective of what has occurred in cleaning its waterways. Newly industrialized countries like China can learn a lot from Michigan's experience. "They've been able to compress about 100 years worth of environmental mismanagement into 25 years," notes Kurt Heise, Director of the Wayne County Department of Environment. Wayne County has made several trade trips to China promoting water management technology.

Five Chinese communities along the Yangtze River are looking at Southeast Michigan companies to help with wastewater and storm water management. The communities, located in watershed areas of the Yangtze, have much in common with Southeast Michigan, Heise says. "The Rouge River certainly isn't as big as the Yangtze, but has common characteristics: heavy industrial, a lot of pollution, flooding, lack of storm water management. … They are very interested in how we've handled our problems here and are interested in the firms that have helped us confront these challenges."

Economic opportunity aside, engineers also realize the ethics of working with water. "The more you have, the more careful you have to be with it," notes Dr. Bernitsas. "There's a lot of world that depends on that water, not just us. If we pollute the water and not use it properly, then what we are doing is more damaging than someone living with a little water."

Dennis Archambault is a regular contributor to Metromode and Model D. His last article was A Healing Menu.


Detroit River

Ariel Sacerdoti


Machining parts

Humbug Marsh

John Hartig

Photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model Contact Marvin here
Detroit River

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