If you’ve ever been skiing (or watched a documentary about it) you might have seen snow cannons—the cylindrical guns that use huge fans to shower snowfields with manufactured snow so that resorts can extend ski seasons or pad the slopes in years of lean snowfall.
As effective as traditional snowmaking systems are, they’re not without inefficiencies in water and energy use. But Austrian startup Neuschnee (German for “new snow”) aims to change that: It has hit on a method that’s as elegant as it is effective to create natural snow—inspired by the very best snowmaker. “We thought it might be easier to just copy nature, create a cloud, and literally let it snow,” says Michael Bacher, CEO of Neuschnee.
All snowmaking systems essentially mix water and air, but the method makes the difference in the quality of snow produced and, more important, the system’s water use and resulting environmental impact. “Just in Austria, we use about 50 million cubic meters of water every season to make snow,” Bacher says. “We consider it our responsibility to develop the most efficient way to produce snow.”
Developing the Cloud Chamber
Before creating the company, Bacher studied what’s called the rheology of snow: how snow deforms as it moves downward due to the effect of gravity. With colleagues from the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna and the Vienna University of Technology, he started looking into the possibility of producing natural snowfall in a subzero facility the way clouds do—as opposed to snow cannons, which use quite different physics to make and project artificial snow.
“We use less water per time unit to produce the same volume of snow,” Bacher says. “If you need to pump less water, you can save huge amounts of water and power because of the pumps responsible for transporting the water to the snow guns.”
Neuschnee calls its snow-production unit the cloud chamber. It’s a large structure, about the size of a suburban water tank, made from a tough polyethylene canvas stretched tautly around an aluminum framework almost 3 cubic meters in diameter and suspended several feet off the ground. It can produce as much as 15 cubic meters of snow with 1 cubic meter of water.
“In cooling an individual droplet, we want the droplet to evaporate, which is the way nature does it,” Bacher says, explaining how the chamber produces snow crystals. “We introduce tiny ice particles and try to catch the water vapor inside the cloud. The ice is more attractive to molecules than available water droplets, and with this kind of magnet, we form ice crystals and grow dendrites according to the temperature inside the cloud.” The result is that natural snow pours through an outlet in the bottom of the chamber, and it’s all done with far less energy than a snow cannon uses.
“You can’t just neglect the infrastructure behind the snow gun or snow lance required to run those devices,” he adds, referring to traditional snowmaking pumps, distributing stations, and fans. Aside from the electricity involved, snow guns can experience between 15 and 40 percent water loss—that means as much as 40 percent of the water is wasted as the artificial snow just drifts away in production.
Uncovering the “Green” Snow Market
One insight Neuschnee has learned is that blanketing large areas might not represent the commercial sweet spot for this technology—yet. “We have a plan that’s no longer focusing on covering entire ski slopes with our snow but starting off with small areas where you reproduce fresh snow day by day,” Bacher says.
Ski fields may present a future market for the technology, Bacher says. Although ski-resort advertising imagery usually shows natural snow, heavy or higher-density snow is easier to groom and prepare for use. “With further development, we’ll definitely increase our production capacity,” Bacher says. “We’ll move away from 0.65 to 15 or 16 cubic meters per hour, and that’s a level that’s competitive to existing snow guns.
But for now, small playing fields and snow skating or snowboarding parks will be Neuschnee’s proving ground. The cloud chamber may be applicable to larger areas like ski fields, but true to his origins as a scientist, Bacher wants the data to speak for itself first.
“Our strategy for the first year and even the second is to prove the system works,” he says. “We can’t quite tell ski fields to go for it, and we’ll deliver 100 of our devices. That’s the future scenario, because we’ll be able to provide solid data to compare our technology with the old-fashioned way of technical snowmaking. At the moment, we only have the data from our test devices. Extrapolate that to the future, and it looks very promising, but it’s difficult to prove at this stage.”
Bacher is also realistic about the cost proposition for introducing the new technology. Despite the environmental savings—and his belief that enough cloud chambers could service an entire ski field—the snow-cannon infrastructure is pretty entrenched at ski resorts. “Ski resorts are going to say, ‘We’ve invested so much money; we have the heavy snow, and everyone’s using it,’” he says.
“Our system isn’t as efficient in terms of production capacity—the volume of snow per time unit—as other systems are,” Bacher continues. “They are also more expensive; we are a small company that cannot offer our device at the price point our competitors do.”
But Bacher says there’s a place at ski resorts in the company’s future. Austria alone has enough ski resorts to support Neuschnee in upcoming years—and with the possible international market taken into account, the sky just might be the limit.
Neuschnee is a member of Autodesk’s Entrepreneur Impact Program.