Hong Kong businessman turns his attention to wind
By Steve Toloken
HONG KONG (September 12, 2006)
-- Two of the biggest hurdles for using wind power have
traditionally been cost and the need for strong winds to make the
giant turbine blades hum. A Hong Kong businessman and part-time
inventor thinks he has found a way to overcome those problems with
|Gambarota, right, and his business
partners, Dennis Leung, left, and Michael Leung, who are
professors in Hong Kong University’s mechanical
Lucien Gambarota, a manufacturers agent and product developer for
Chinese toy factories, has designed a small, injection molded
turbine that he says can be made cheaply, making wind power more
affordable and practical.
The technology is untested in the real world, but given oil
prices at US$70 (556 yuan) a barrel and massive pollution in China’s
skies, Gambarota thinks it’s an idea that has some wind behind it.
He’s invested more than US$60,000 (500,000 yuan) of his own
money, and said his startup, Ace Tower Co. Ltd., is working on a
memorandum of understanding with an unnamed investment firm. He and
his partners are talking with potential customers in windy Mongolia
and in China, where there’s interest from poor, remote areas not
well-served by stringing electric lines.
Plastic is key to manufacturing it affordably, he said.
“It is because of plastic that it is going to be done,” he said.
“We could do exactly the same thing in aluminum, but at the end the
cost would be so high that it won’t be any improvement.”
Each polymer wind turbine is tiny, no more than 50 centimeters in
diameter, but can be injection molded. When linked with potentially
thousands of similar turbines mounted on frames, they can generate
as much power as the traditional, 50 meter tall steel and fiberglass
wind mills lined up at commercial wind farms, he said.
Think hundreds of plastic pinwheels, all connected and gathering
As Gambarota sees it, wind energy technology is in the same place
the automobile was before Henry Ford introduced mass production and
turned the car from an expensive luxury to something available to
“Renewable energy is following the same process and the same
logic,” he said. “At one point or another, it will have to be mass
Gambarota, a chemist by education who learned plastic molding
from 15 years representing Chinese toy makers to European buyers,
said his background in product development and manufacturing led him
to look for something cheaper than traditional wind power, with its
20 meter blades made from glass-fiber-reinforced plastic.
“Maybe that’s why I bring something new and different, because my
first priority is production, and that means costs,” he said. “The
only way I know to control costs is mass production.”
His turbines, he said, have an initial capital investment of
about US$100 (790 yuan) per kilowatt, compared with US$600 (4,800
yuan) for coal plants and US$1,500 (12,000 yuan) for traditional
wind turbines. Traditional wind turbines make power for about
US$0.10 (0.80 yuan) per kilowatt hour; he projects his turbines will
do it for one tenth of that.
Plus, those larger turbines require wind speeds in the
neighborhood of 10 meters per second. His smaller plastic ones, he
said, need winds of only 2 meters a second to start working. And
they offer flexibility in design — a long row of them could lie on
top of a hill or a building.
But the technology remains untested in a commercial setting. He
has built prototypes by hand at Hong Kong University, where he’s
enlisted several engineering professors as partners in his venture,
but his versions so far have been made with acrylic. He said he’s
confident, but needs to see how the injection molded models work.
Once the molds are built this fall, he plans to test them from
the top of one of the university’s skyscrapers overlooking Hong
Kong’s Victoria Harbor.
Other technical decisions remain unresolved. For example, he’s
not sure what plastic to use. He said he’s considered nylon because
of its strength and flexibility, but wants the turbines to be
relatively transparent, so as not to be eyesores.
It’s not his only foray into renewable energy.
Hong Kong’s media has closely followed his attempts to make a
machine that can use the motion of ocean waves to generate
He’s launched several prototypes in the waters around Hong Kong,
but one disappeared and another malfunctioned and drifted away. The
technology for that device is more complicated, so he’s looking for
investors who understand the energy business.
Gambarota clearly has a tinkerer’s mind. He developed a lollipop
with a small plastic tube that lights up the inside of the candy,
and he said the company that makes it has sold millions of them
He admits to first getting interested in chemistry as a teenager
in France because, he said, “I was making explosives for fun … I
wanted to boom everything.”
Now, though, his work is much more sedate, as he greets a visitor
and shows his two home-based workshops, including some of the early
windmill prototypes, with his young sons and daughter following
Whether that early fascination with explosives proves prophetic —
and Gambarota’s work brings some creative destruction that changes
the power industry — is hard to know. But he’s hopeful for an
“We are lucky we are in a business where basically nothing
exists,” he said. “That means I don’t have to compare with other
existing techniques, because there is none. No matter what I do,
even if it’s not as good as, it will be cheaper.”