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Tiny motors drive huge water savings

Tiny motors drive huge water savings
Hundreds of billions of gallons of water could be saved in Australia's arid outback, thanks to innovative solar powered flume gates driven by Maxon motors.

All over the world, water is an increasingly valuable resource. The average European gets through two swimming pools' worth every year, but not everyone is in such a comfortable position. Recent droughts and water shortages in East Africa, China and Australia have become a constant reminder that running water should not be taken for granted. Australia, in particular, endured a once-in-a-century drought at the beginning of 2007 and its parched landscape is regularly consumed by devastating forest fires. In these situations, every drop of water counts, and individual Australians are certainly feeling the effects; yet as a country, Australia ranks as the second-highest consumer of water per person in the world. Such a stark contrast is clearly unsustainable, and water efficiency is big news down under.

Now, a new development is expected to save more than 700 billion litres of water a year in the State of Victoria alone. And it's made possible partly by the efficiency of a tiny dc motor. 

The city of Melbourne consumes 400 billion litres of water per year. It gets its supply primarily from the Goulburn-Murray irrigation district; a network of channels that distributes 70% of water resources in the State of Victoria to cities and the agricultural sector alike. Every year, 2,500 billion litres flow through the Goulburn-Murray channels - of which a staggering 750 billion is lost through inefficient water distribution: a worrying fact in one of Australia's two key 'breadbaskets'. 

The problem lay in a farmland irrigation system that had remained relatively unchanged for almost a century. Water was channelled to farmland by means of a Dethridge wheel, similar to a mill-wheel. Water officers were responsible for turning these ancient wheels on and off by hand, controlling over 1,000km of channels spanning remote and often inaccessible land. This meant that it could take up to 24 hours before water was delivered to farms or before it could be turned off. This process was inefficient for two main reasons. Firstly, water was lost through spillages or seeped away through leaks in rusty distribution wheels. Secondly, because of the 24-hour delay in responding to any change in conditions, water was still channelled onto agricultural land after heavy downpours, even if crops did not actually need it.

Now, however, new technology promises to revolutionise Australian irrigation efficiency, and reduce water wastage by as much as 93% - enough to fill eleven million swimming pools per year. 'Total Channel Control' (TCC) is a precise sluice system where any combination of 2,500 individual flume gates can be operated remotely, within two hours. For farmers, this means water can be summoned for field management purposes in real time, by telephone, internet or even SMS text message. As a result, the flow rate can be quickly and carefully adjusted so each farmer is only supplied with as much water as he actually needs. The system is controlled by electronic microdrives. Achieving optimum water efficiency requires absolute precision - which is one reason why brushed motors from Maxon's high-performing RE series were selected to automatically open and close every one of the 2,500 gates along the channel.

Self-sufficient operation
Similarly, the inaccessible location of many of the gates means regular maintenance and repair is out of the question. With a pedigree proven in the toughest possible environments - both in this world and on NASA Mars Missions - the RE Program is robust enough to keep running for years with minimum fuss. Indeed, the channels' remote geography require the system to be self-sufficient in more ways than one. Just like the old Dethridge wheels, the new flume gates need to be self-powering.

The TCC gates run on batteries charged using photo-voltaic cells. Even with the powerful Australian sun as their source of electricity, this puts significant further demands upon the drive technology, making energy efficiency another complicating factor. Again, brushed motors from Maxon fit the bill. With RE Program motors boasting efficiency levels as high as 93%, the TCC engineers were able to implement their vision for self-contained, self-supporting gates without wires or other limiting paraphernalia. 

But the drive for self-sufficiency doesn't end with power. With the next phase of the TCC concept, sensors are now being incorporated into agricultural fields to automatically monitor soil humidity content and respond accordingly. Soon, Australian farmers will no longer have to decide when and how much water they need for their fields, as the irrigation system continually maintains the required level of soil humidity for crops. This not only brings cost savings for the agricultural sector, but saves still more water for the population. This conservation is essential - but, given that the entire Australian continent only accounts for 1% of the global irrigation market, it could be only the beginning for TCC. The potential savings to be found by implementing this technology elsewhere in the world are truly mind-blowing.

The imperative to save water shows no sign of abating. The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) has warned of a major water shortage in less than 20 years. If current trends continue, then by 2025, a further 1.8 billion people will find themselves living in regions with severe water shortages. It is no surprise, then, that TCC systems are being installed in America and North Africa. If this technology can be introduced globally, the world's most precious resource can be used properly - to improve lives.
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