Three winning teams that built pathways to guide fish, screens to mimic the gills of filter-feeding fish, and acoustically sensitive netting materials back in 2020 as part of the US Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office Swimming Toward Market Readiness: Fish Protection Prize have further developed their innovative concepts, which have the potential to help modernize hydropower facilities and protect fish from water diversion pipes and dam intakes across the country.

The Fish Protection Prize challenged competitors to protect any fish species found in the US by proposing new ideas or improving existing technologies to protect fish. The prize aimed to identify solutions that could apply to river and irrigation canal diversions, unscreened diversion pipes for irrigation or municipal water supplies, cooling water intakes of power plants, or dam intakes.

Three teams won based on their concepts’ opportunities for technical innovation and feasibility, market feasibility, and the proposed research and development plan.

"Downstream passage of fish at intakes and dams is not an adequately solved problem,” said Sterling Watson, mechanical engineer at Natel Energy and team captain of The Center Sender, which won third place. “The Fish Protection Prize gave us the opportunity to not only help solve that problem, but also the opportunity to work with experts at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) to design our study plan, prepare for the test, provide resources, conduct prototype testing of our device, and do the data analysis on the results.”

Over the past two years, the teams have continued developing their winning concepts, refining their solutions with market readiness in mind.

Making a deal with the Devilfish: Biometric-informed screening technology

The grand-prize winning Making a Deal with the Devilfish’s technology is a novel fish protection screen that hydropower facilities can use to keep small aquatic life from being accidentally drawn into water intakes. The porous screen mimics the gills of filter-feeding fish to separate small aquatic life, like tiny zooplankton, from intake water. The screen has an anti-clogging feature and prevents fish and other lifeforms from traveling through water diversion pipes and into the facility's powerhouse where hydroelectricity is generated.

“Through the Fish Protection Prize, we've been able to test our concept using both computer modeling and with the PNNL folks,” said the team’s Benjamin Mater. “We’ve also tested our concept at Alden Research Laboratory’s facilities. Now, we have a lot of data that can help us optimize the shape of our screen bar elements so that we maximize those very small-scale flow patterns, which can better protect small life stages.”

Mater and his teammate Charles Coutant also have a long-term vision to scale up their fish protection screen, which could help guide larger aquatic lifeforms, like migratory fish that aren't just passively floating by these screens. The team is also thinking about how to optimize the screen bar shape for different stream flows, and how their data can help improve general regulations for the types of fish protection screens that hydropower facilities use.

Fish Diversion Material and Inspection Improvements

Second place went to Nicholas and Kenneth LaBry’s concept, Fish Diversion Material and Inspection Improvements, which featured a new additive for netting that reflects sonar (short for sound navigation and ranging) signal that hydropower facilities can use in fish barriers at water intakes.

Using fish barrier nets that reflect sonar allows hydropower operators to better inspect and maintain their facilities’ infrastructure. Experts inspecting these materials use the sound waves to better visualize underwater infrastructure. This innovation makes maintenance safer and less expensive, removing the need to send divers or cameras into the water.

“We have a number of things we’re still working on,” said Nicholas LaBry, founder and principal partner for Prometheus Innovations, LLC. “We’ve been collaborating with researchers at PNNL to incorporate their biofouling prevention coatings on our netting material so that the nets don’t lose their acoustic reflectivity.”

“We have cooperative research agreements with PNNL, working on grants over the next three years,” said Kenneth LaBry, senior partner at Prometheus Innovations, LLC. “Beyond that, we’re applying for a National Science Foundation grant as well as applying for funding through the Small Business Innovation Research program.”

“We have a number of other initiatives directing where we're going with this [biofouling-resistant coating] material. We're in the process of applying for [grants] for the basic methodology that we've identified,” said Kenneth LaBry.

The Center Sender

Third place went to Sterling Watson and Abe Schneider of Natel Energy’s Center Sender team. They proposed a concept that guides fish away from underwater turbines’ most dangerous areas using an electrified cantilevered bar rack—a physical/electrical device that guides fish to the safest path through a hydropower intake or water diversion.

“The project's name, Center Sender, comes from this idea that we might be able to guide fish toward the hub of turbines, which is the place where the turbine blades are moving the slowest, where strike speeds for fish are the slowest,” said Schneider, chief technology officer and co-founder of Natel Energy. “So, this actually might allow for turbines that aren't specifically designed for safe fish passage to operate more safely for larger numbers of fish.”

Since winning third place in the Fish Protection Prize, the team has performed prototype testing and learned that it is possible to guide fish to safer pathways through combined mechanical and electrical guidance. By studying the effectiveness of electric field guidance at higher velocities representative of turbine intakes, the team also found that higher velocities resulted in more effective guidance.

“We now have the infrastructure to extend this testing to a wider variety of species using different form factors,” said Watson. “Next, we’ll collect more data and refine the design before we bring it out into the field. I'm excited to keep developing the idea and the technology and finding new opportunities for this type of fish guidance to make a difference.”


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