Why you should care

To Anis Aouini, “seizing the moment” meant working nonstop through violent protests to make his radical vision of a bladeless wind turbine a reality. 

When Anis Aouini proclaimed in high school that he would change the world, his friends laughed and called him crazy. After he showed them an elaborate remote control airplane that he built from scratch, they swore he must have bought it.

And today, when the chairman of the Tunis-based wind power startup Saphon Energy tells people about the bladeless wind turbine he invented — the Saphonian — they ask how he knows it will work, since the Japanese and Americans hadn’t already invented something similar.

No stranger to doubt, Aouini insists his invention “is really revolutionary.” Today’s propeller-based wind turbines can convert up to about 60 percent of the energy in wind into electricity. But Aouini claims the dish-shaped Saphonian can turn nearly 80 percent of wind energy into electricity and costs roughly half as much to make. Earning the 2013 Innovation Prize for Africa and scheduled for commercialization this year, the Saphonian could provide much-needed renewable energy to a country devoid of fossil fuel reserves and transform the wind energy industry.

Aouini claims the dish-shaped Saphonian can turn nearly 80 percent of wind energy into electricity and costs nearly half as much to make.

But at the heart of Aouini’s invention? Fierce love for his native Tunisia. More than anything, he hopes the Saphonian — named after a Carthaginian wind deity — will inspire young engineers in a country that typically imports rather than innovates. With the recent ousting of president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali loosening his cronies’ stronghold over the economy, Aouini believes the time for entrepreneurship is now.

“There’s this belief that what is imported from outside is best, and we cannot really innovate,” Aouini explained. “We need to show that we are capable of creating our own technology.” While many in his country “struggle with an inferiority complex,” he peppers his conversation with references to ancient Tunisia’s maritime prowess and the Carthaginian general Hannibal, who failed to destroy Rome but is admired for his boldness and tenacity. He even named his mentorship program for young engineers “The Comeback of Carthage.”

With long, disheveled hair and hookah pen in hand, 36-year-old Aouini looks more rock star than nerdy engineer. But tinkering runs in his blood. Born into a family of engineers along the Mediterranean coast, he visited the local seaport every day as a schoolboy just to watch the sailboats skimming along the waves, wondering what made them go so fast. Equally enthralled with military aircraft, he spent hours assembling model planes and meticulously sketching fighter jets.

After studying engineering at the National Institute of Design, Aouini worked in the oil sector. And then, inspiration hit — in a gust of wind.

As he sat drinking in a Tunis pub in 2010, a strong sea breeze swept a curtain and the stone holding it in place squarely into his chair. Impressed by the wind’s strength, he knew there had to be a way to harness it. Watching the curtain billow outward, he suddenly remembered the sailboats he watched growing up — how their sails alone seemed to harness enough energy to send them flying.

It was the perfect time to find out. A revolution was brewing; if it ousted Ben-Ali, Aouini would actually have a shot at commercializing his technology. Under Ben-Ali, only those who had ties to his regime could start their own companies. So he seized a moment during the uprising to turn his vision into a reality, immediately making plans with Hassine Labaied, his friend since high school, to launch Saphon Energy.Then something clicked in his mind. Conventional wind turbines can convert at most 59 percent of the energy in wind to electricity, a number known as the Betz limit — but the limit applies only to propeller systems. What about a curved, sail-shaped turbine without propeller blades? Could its efficiency even exceed the Betz limit?

Amid violent protests, Aouini worked in his Tunis workshop non-stop to build a prototype for the Saphonian. He wanted to take full advantage of the political upheaval, which had finally opened the door to large-scale change in Tunisia—including the dawn of a much-needed green energy industry. And he firmly believed the Saphonian would set it off. “The pressure on us was huge,” Labaied explained. “We wanted to make a tangible contribution to the great Tunisian revolution. Under such circumstances, you cannot take it easy. You must double the effort and succeed.”

Besides being more efficient than conventional wind turbines, Aouini says the Saphonian is much quieter and more bird-friendly since it doesn’t have propellers that can injure them as they fly past. Wind farms killed an estimated 20,000 birds in the U.S. in 2009.

Inspired by the flight patterns of birds, Aouini finally settled on a concave body that swiveled about in a three-dimensional figure-eight pattern, activating a series of pistons attached to a generator, which then converted the mechanical energy into electricity. When he tested it in the lab, his jaw dropped: The Saphonian had converted a whopping 78 percent of the wind energy into electricity — far exceeding the Betz limit. ”We were overwhelmed,” he said. ”It was a mixture of excitement, pride [and] relief.”

The pressure on us was huge. We wanted to make a tangible contribution to the great Tunisian revolution.

— Hassine Labaied

Aouini obtained an international patent for the Saphonian from the U.N.’s World Intellectual Property Organization, while Labaied raised seed money in Dubai, where he was working in finance. Last year, Labaied returned to Tunis, and the duo officially launched Saphon Energy. Once commercialized, the Saphonian will initially complement current propeller-based systems — but could eventually replace them altogether, they say.

Some wind power experts, though eager for new solutions, remain skeptical of the technology. Although a sail-like design would be free from Betz’s limit in theory, the company has yet to make a strong case for it through testing conducted by an independent party. And despite Aouini’s claims, the cost of the machine still appears to outweigh the energy gains.

“I would be highly, highly skeptical of such a device,” said Scott Greene, director of the Oklahoma Wind Power Initiative. “There have been a large number of alternative wind-energy designs over the years, and none has come close to matching the cost and effectiveness of the traditional design.”

Aouini takes the doubt in stride. Just as his hero, Hannibal, never gave up on conquering Rome, he still holds fast to his dream of transforming his country, naysayers be damned. ”I want the Saphonian to be a flag for Tunisia, to prove that, yes, from this country, from old Carthage, there are people capable of innovating and doing something great,” he said.


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