A river runs through it

A wide-ranging project originally conceived by Tulane University as a museum, education center and art space, all focused on the dynamic power of the Mississippi River, has shifted gears. Now the focus will be on harnessing that power to produce renewable energy and to potentially develop a new industry for New Orleans. 

RiverSphere, as the project is known, is now taking shape as a business incubator and proving ground for hydrokinetic power, which would generate electrical power using the Mississippi’s ceaseless flow to spin turbines placed in its current.

“It’s capitalizing on the Mississippi River as a strategic asset. This is our region’s niche and we have the opportunity to use it in a powerful way,” says RiverSphere executive director Douglas Meffert. “Here we are in New Orleans at the bottom of the largest river in North America but right now we’re not using any of it.”

Located at the riverfront Robin Street Wharf, next to the new Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World and the Morial Convention Center, RiverSphere will have labs, office and exhibit space and floating barges from which companies can test prototypes of hydrokinetic turbines. It would be the nation’s first “vendor-neutral” demonstration site, or one where multiple companies can collect data on performance and environmental impacts.

“What the industry needs is a proof of concept and that’s where Tulane can come in,” Meffert says. “It will be a place to see what works and, frankly, what doesn’t.”

This spring, the U.S. Economic Development Administration awarded Tulane $3 million for RiverSphere to help convert a 22,000-square-foot warehouse into the new business incubator facility. Fundraising continues for the project.

The roots of RiverSphere go back to the 1990s, when Tulane professor John McLachlan, director of Tulane’s Center for Bioenvironmental Research, and John Barry, author of the seminal Mississippi River flood book Rising Tide, began collaborating on a project to bring more public attention to the river in New Orleans. They originally envisioned an extension of Tulane’s campus along the downtown riverfront that would include a museum, research center and performance venue.

Katrina reordered priorities, however, and plans were scaled back. But in the intervening years, Meffert says, hydrokinetic technology made significant leaps and presented a new realm of focus for RiverSphere.

“We have this window where there’s no other facility like this, so if we don’t do this it’s our loss,” he says. “We have all the pieces here, and we have the opportunity for New Orleans to be the leader in this area.”

For project updates and details, visit www.riverweb.org.

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