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Gambarota: Riding the clean technology wave

By Kevin Voigt
For CNN
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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Lucien Gambarota sees energy everywhere.

The 49-year-old Italian inventor -- whose day job for years has been creating toys and connecting Chinese manufacturers with European companies -- decided to get into the energy business when he saw his electricity bills triple during the long, hot summers in subtropical Hong Kong, where he is based.

"Suddenly I'm paying (US$1,000) a month for electric bills, and I thought, 'This is really crazy'," he says. "Hong Kong is surrounded by natural energy --the waves of the sea, the wind."

With investors and a business partner, Gambarota formed Motorwave Ltd., an alternative energy producer. The company is working on techniques to harness wave movement to collect energy and extract hydrogen for fuel cells and tapping into the sweat of treadmill runners at a local gym to generate electricity.

The company's latest creation, developed in conjunction with the University of Hong Kong, is a micro-wind turbine: a device small enough to be placed on rooftops or apartment balconies yet able to generate as much as 40 percent of a household's energy needs, Gambarota claims.

"Most wind turbines are huge and require technology equivalent to building an airplane or a submarine," Gambarota says. "I wanted to create something that can easily be mass-produced, easily maintained and works in (lower) wind conditions."

Gambarota and his partners are hoping to ride the "clean technology" wave. Alternative energy development -- be it from hydrogen, renewable mixture of gasoline distilled with fermented grains or solar power -- is suddenly creating buzz among entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.

Alternative energy has become the hottest technology ticket in the Silicon Valley tech industries of the United States. Spurred by oil prices that reached $77 a barrel last summer and a call from U.S. President George W. Bush to decrease the "oil addiction" of the world's largest economy, funding for clean technology firms increased 266 percent last year, raising $300 million in the third quarter alone, according to the Silicon Valley Index, published by the non-profit group Joint Venture.

Legendary venture capitalists such as Vinod Khosla, who backed Sun Microsystems and Juniper Networks, is investing heavily in alternative energy. In a recent interview with Reuters, he said the risks of investing in biofuels "is no different than semiconductors."

According to the Associated Press, ConocoPhillips -- the third largest oil company in the United States -- plans to increase alternative energy research such as ethanol, bio-diesel and other cleaner burning fuels by 60 percent this year. The company is keeping pace with competitors such as Chevron Corp., which purchase a 22 percent stake in Galveston Bay biodiesel last year.

Marathon Oil Corp. is talking about a joint venture to make ethanol with grain processor Andersons Inc., and BP PLC and DuPont have teamed up to research a new alternative fuel called biobutanol, which can be produced from fermenting biomass -- much like compost -- as well as petroleum.

Gambarota: Thinking small the key

In Hong Kong, Gambarota is thinking big by thinking small. Research done by his company, Motorwave, shows that remote communities in South Pacific islands that invested in large wind turbines usually abandoned the technology after three years.

"Why? The turbines would require repair from (a) manufacturer who would take two or three weeks to fly in," he says. "It's a pragmatic problem -- you can't go a few weeks without power, so they just go back to gas-powered generators."

Gambarota's design uses eight 25-centimeter propellers on a single turbine that hooks to a generator. Like the toy Legos, the props can be linked up to create higher and higher power yields. The pieces are small enough to be mass-produced by plastic mould injection, and the engine used is already readily available on the market.

"It's simple enough people can repair it themselves," he says. While conventional turbines need wind speeds of 10-meters-per-second to operate, his turbine can generate power with wind levels as low as two-meters-per-second.

The selling price of the units -- which so far have been contracted to be installed at a World Wildlife Federation office and a Hong Kong seaside school -- starts at $150.

"Renewable energy (products) are going through the roof, so we're hoping this is a product that will appeal to people everywhere, be it in rural or urban environments," he says.