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Solar-Powered Waterwheel Cleans Baltimore Harbor

Solar-powered waterwheel
The waterwheel was introduced in May and gathered 50,000 lb of debris in just two weeks, using less energy and manpower than traditional methods. Courtesy of Clearwater Mills, LLC

A 50 ft long barge-mounted device is scooping up trash from the Inner Harbor and making a visible statement about keeping watersheds clean.

June 3, 2014—This summer, millions of tourists and residents will visit the shops and attractions that line Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, and when they do, they might notice that the water itself looks cleaner than before. Officials have recently deployed a solar-powered water wheel to intercept and collect the tons of trash that normally flow into the harbor from the Jones Falls stream.

The Inner Harbor Waterwheel can collect as much as 50,000 lb of floating debris in one day, says John Kellett, who invented the machine alongside Daniel Chase as founding partners of the Pasadena, Maryland-based firm Clearwater Mills, LLC. The wheel was introduced in early May as part of the Healthy Harbor Initiative, a program run by the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, Inc., a nonprofit organization financed by harbor-area business owners.

The machine is 50 ft long, weighs 100,000 lb, and floats on a steel barge platform at the mouth of the Jones Falls. It uses a pair of containment booms to gather debris, which it then rakes onto a conveyor belt and transports into a dumpster barge. The dumpster is swapped out and emptied when it becomes full.

The waterwheel debuted on May 8, and collected nearly 50,000 lb of debris in its first two weeks. Kellett, who holds a patent for its design, says that the wheel uses less energy and labor than traditional trash-gathering methods, and could one day replace those other methods in the Inner Harbor and elsewhere.

“There are many, many places where this type of technology could be useful,” says Kellett, who has a boat-building and environmental science background. “It uses no fossil fuels, powers itself, and while there are other technologies out there, we think we’ve improved on them as far as effectiveness and cost.”

The Inner Harbor has long been plagued by pollution problems, including litter from city residents living upstream. The litter is most evident on rainy days, when high-velocity flow from its swollen tributaries brings enough garbage and assorted debris to practically coat the water.

Kellett noticed this in the early 2000s, when he served as the executive director of the Baltimore Maritime Museum and would frequently hear tourists bemoan the harbor’s less-than-sanitary condition. He developed a smaller prototype of the waterwheel that was used for eight months in 2008 to help collect trash flow from the Jones Falls.

Many other groups have looked to solve the harbor’s trash problem, including the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore. In 2009, the group launched the Healthy Harbor Initiative, which aims to improve the harbor’s water quality through cleanup and education efforts with the goal of making it swimmable by 2020.

“During a large rainstorm event, there’s just so much trash in the harbor,” says Adam Lindquist, the project manager for the Healthy Harbor Initiative. “There have been days when it looks like you can almost walk across the water, because it’s just coated with a layer of trash and debris.”

The city has typically used fuel-powered skimmer boats to gather trash after it has already dispersed into the harbor, but the Healthy Harbor Initiative teamed with Kellett and Clearwater Mills to develop a method that would be more proactive and environmentally friendly. They secured $800,000 in funding for the waterwheel—$300,000 from Constellation Energy Group, a Baltimore-based energy producer, and $500,000 from the Maryland Port Administration.

The completed device includes a 14 ft diameter waterwheel and 30 solar panels that can produce as much as 30 kW-hr of energy in a day—enough to power a typical Maryland home. In addition to preventing tons of trash from entering the harbor, officials say that the machine’s presence will send an important message to tourists and residents.

“It’s in a very visible location and it helps to educate people about trash and the watershed and the problems of storm-water pollution,” Kellett says. “As long as it’s well-maintained, the machine can last for at least a couple decades.”

Kellett says that he has already received inquiries from officials around the country who are interested in using the waterwheel rather than such alternatives as skimmer boats and netting systems. He says that another waterwheel could also be added to the Inner Harbor to catch debris from another tributary.

While the waterwheel is built to last, officials hope that they won’t need it for very long. Lindquist says that while the machine is a “brilliant solution” to the harbor’s trash woes, it is treating only a symptom of a larger problem: Baltimore’s littering epidemic.

He says that the Healthy Harbor Initiative runs education and awareness programs that it hopes will discourage littering throughout the city and the 58 sq mi Jones Falls Watershed. The initiative has also installed floating wetlands, oyster gardens, and rain gardens in and around the harbor that Lindquist says have helped to clean its water and promote conservation.

“It’s kind of ridiculous that a company would have to go to this kind of extreme to get trash out of waterways when the simple answer is to get people to properly dispose of their own trash and litter,” he says. “Five or 10 years from now, we hope to be able to say that this waterwheel is no longer needed because the amount of trash has been so greatly reduced.”



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