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[CAIRO] An Egyptian engineering researcher has come up with an award-winning innovation to solve one of the most serious problems with the energy efficiency of power-plant turbines and generators.

The innovation extends the life of journal or plain bearings ‒ a mechanical part whose function is to support heavy machinery and prevent the friction, wear and tear, and erosion that affects the surfaces of rapidly rotating parts. They also help control the movement of blades in the machinery.

Journal bearings are used in many types of machinery including cars, computers, refrigerators and construction equipment.

“With this innovation, we will export the design and the product.”

Ali El-Shafei

Over the past two decades, scientifically and technologically-advanced industrial nations have been working on developing a ‘smart’ journal bearing. But success has been elusive.

In 2010, Ali El-Shafei, a professor of mechanical engineering, patented the Smart Electro-Mechanical Actuator Journal Integrated Bearing (SEMAJIB), which he invented after eight years of design and development at Cairo University.

‟Importing designs from abroad has been the norm in developing countries,” explains El-Shafei, adding that this already happens in the region’s manufacturing industries, even when local parts are used.

‟With this innovation, we will export the design and the product,” he told SciDev.Net in an interview. A patent was filed in the United States in 2010, and another is on its way this year.

Having patented the invention gives a four- or five-year lead in this ‘race’ with the West, added El-Shafei. He says the innovation has caught the attention of manufacturing giants such as Siemens and General Electric.

It has also received recognition closer to home: El-Shafei won the grand prize at this year’s Innovation Prize for Africa ‒ a cash award of US$100,000 that he received from the president of Ghana at the award ceremony last July in Accra.

El-Shafei’s ‘smart’ bearing claimed the top prize after competing with 2,500 inventors from 48 African countries under the title 'Investing in Prosperity'. All the innovations were of high value and quality, according to the chair of the jury, Barthelemy Nyasse, and this made the selection process difficult. ‟Every innovation represents a local solution to local challenges,” he said.

According to the Nyasse, the ‘smart’ bearing proves that African creativity can compete on the global stage. El-Shafei believes it can also help transform the image of Africans from consumers to producers of technology. In addition, production of the technology in the region or the continent can create jobs for individuals and economic benefits for states.

There are many types of journal bearings and, depending on the way they operate, each has its advantages and disadvantages. Oil-impregnated bearings have many advantages, but suffer from instability and tend to vibrate at high speeds. These flaws have expensive solutions.

El-Shafei introduced a magnetic part that allows users to control the oil-filled bearing while operating the machinery ‒ and this control can be done remotely, without human intervention.

This ‘smart’ bearing improves the performance of turbines in power plants that combine gas and steam technologies, and of traditional electricity generators.

The high cost of electricity production remains a major challenge in developing countries. ‟Governments are forced to subsidise consumption”, says El-Shafei.

‟Improving the efficiency of the power-generating turbines operating in combined cycle plants, as well as conventional generators, will significantly cut energy costs.”

The innovation also cuts maintenance costs for turbines. In addition, it helps increase their lifespan by 10 per cent ‒ turbines and generators generally work only between 70-85 per cent of the year as they stop due to malfunction or need for maintenance. This translates to higher electricity production from each generator, claims El-Shafei.

Another feature of the ‘smart turbine’ is that it comes in two halves, he explains, making it easy to install in old machines to increase their efficiency.

Amr Adly, vice president for Graduate Studies and Scientific Research at Cairo University, said ‟the most important feature is that it prolongs the lifetime of the machine”.

El-Shafei has developed two prototypes, and the next step is to produce an industrial prototype.

‟I had a clear vision from the very beginning,” says El-Shafei. “I used to [believe] and I still believe in the value of innovation as vital for developing countries.”

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Middle East & North Africa desk.