Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Techy Tuesday - The Future of Windmills May Be Losing the Blades

Ordinarily, when a structure shakes in the wind, it's a bad thing.  Perhaps the most famous example in history is the collapse of "Galloping Gertie", the Tacoma Narrows bridge in Washington, 1940, and that's a pretty extreme example.  Probably everyone has heard the wind cause powerlines to make sound, or felt things moving in the wind.  Everyone who has ever sailed a boat has felt it.  In virtually all situations, the wind-induced motion is undesired.  Some structures, like telescopes, spend a lot of engineering effort to eliminate that motion.  

I bet you never thought of that motion as energy that could be captured to do something useful.  Researchers in a small start-up company in Spain are working on that very idea. The company's called Vortex Bladeless, and its wind energy harvesters don't look like the giant windmills we're used to.  They look more like giant stalks poking out of the ground.
The mast design is being optimized to create vibration in the wind; at the bottom, that vibrational energy drives a mechanical alternator that turns mechanical energy into electrical.
The Vortex’s shape was developed computationally to ensure the spinning wind (vortices) occurs synchronously along the entirety of the mast. “The swirls have to work together to achieve good performance,” Villarreal explains. In its current prototype, the elongated cone is made from a composite of fiberglass and carbon fiber, which allows the mast to vibrate as much as possible (an increase in mass reduces natural frequency). At the base of the cone are two rings of repelling magnets, which act as a sort of nonelectrical motor. When the cone oscillates one way, the repelling magnets pull it in the other direction, like a slight nudge to boost the mast’s movement regardless of wind speed. This kinetic energy is then converted into electricity via an alternator that multiplies the frequency of the mast’s oscillation to improve the energy-gathering efficiency.
Why bother?  First off, there are no rotating parts, and no bearings, so maintenance costs drop like a rock.  Maintenance is a major cost for conventional wind turbines.  Vortex Bladeless says its turbine would cost around half of the traditional turbine whose major costs come from the blades and support system.  They're easier to manufacture and install than conventional wind turbines.  Plus, with no spinning blades, they won't produce the infrasonic problems the current wind turbines produce and they'll be much easier on the bird and bat populations. 

The company says they’re hoping to have their first product, a 9-foot, 100-watt turbine that will be used in developing countries, ready before the end of the year. A 41-foot counterpart to that turbine, called the Mini, will be ready in a year.  At this stage of their development, nothing appears to be said about how well it will scale up.  They say their approach extracts less energy from a wind stream, but they make up for it by being able to put up more of their masts than conventional turbines in a given space.  

One of the major problems with wind energy is its terrible costs compared to fossil fuels.  If the cost per kW could be improved (including the long tail of logistics),it might enable wind power to make economic sense. 


  1. The only question not addressed is the lifespan of the materials.
    Just as frictional resistance stresses metal when you bend and rebend it will this constant flexing cause the material to fail. Nothing lasts forever, how long before the constant vibration causes this
    thing to fail and break, probably at the narrowest point near the bottom. Other than that factor it looks promising.


  2. Something similar was done in Abu Dhabi using a thing called a "WindStalk": http://atelierdna.com/masdarwindstalk/

    Also, there are a few companies (and now a DIY Instructable) for building what is called a wind-belt generator or Ribbon Generator

    These use magnets attached to a ribbon that oscillates in the wind. The magnets induce a current in coils situated on one or both sides of the magnet so that as the field ebbs and flows due to the movement of the ribbon, current is induced in both coils in opposite phases. Actually seems pretty cool.

    Here's one company that makes a wind-belt generator: http://www.humdingerwind.com/#/wi_overview/

  3. Wowser! All that engineering resource to build a 9 foot high spike to produce 100 watts WHEN THE WIND BLOWS between the "enough" and the "too much" velocity.

    Hmmm ... for the cost, I'd say that that would pay for a lot of electricity to run a lightbulb for quite a long while, wind or no wind.

    Phil B

  4. I think that it is important to continue to explore alternatives energy sources because fossil fuels won't last forever and a modern society depends on energy. But my fear is that the meddling by government and many NGO's are killing initative with subsidies and regulations that favor one "solution" over another. This is too important and serious for us to allow government to screw it up. Wind power has "some" promise but without huge subsidies no one would have built these 150' bird blenders. The cost of one of these huge wind powered behemoths is around a million apiece including installation, support and maintenance over it's lifetime. But even in windy locations it is doubtful that any of them will even generate $100,000 worth of electricity! Now that is sheer stupidity. What is happening in the alternative energy industry is they are "mining" subsidies and all of this effort and cost will not solve our problems. Get the government out of it. Get special interests out of it. Allow innovation to create alternatives that do not require subsidies. Then let the free market decide if any of these alternatives are practical.