By Tela Zasloff
Research in green energy technology is forging ahead across the world, undaunted by the economic and political roadblocks that any government—local to national—can put in its way. That is the recent news coming out, this time from Spain, about a new design for building wind turbines [http://www.wired.com/2015/05/future-wind-turbines-no-blades/]. A company called Vortex Bladeless, founded by David Suriol, David Yáñez, and Raul Martín, is working on a wind turbine that operates on the principle of vorticity, an aerodynamic effect—whirlpools of wind—that turns wind into kinetic energy that can be used as electricity. Vorticity is infamous among architects and engineers as a force to be avoided, since a strong wind can cause certain structures to oscillate, sometimes causing their collapse (The collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1940 is one example, which David Yáñez studied in his student days.) But the reaction of Vortex Bladeless founders is, “Why don’t we try to use this energy, not avoid it?”
The Vortex Bladeless mast now being designed looks like a rolled up cigarette (one of its founders compared it to a stalk of asparagus), ranging in height from 9 feet with a 100-watt turbine to be used in developing countries, to the 41-foot Mini, both to be ready by next year. The shape was developed to ensure that the spinning whirlwinds occur evenly along the entire mast, the material is a fiberglass and carbon fiber composite, and a nonelectrical motor at the base, composed of rings of repelling magnets, boosts the mast’s movements regardless of wind speed. The kinetic energy is converted into electricity through an alternator to improve the efficiency of the energy being gathered. The advantages of this turbine over our present ones are: there are no gears, bolts or mechanical moving parts so they are cheaper to manufacture and maintain; it would cost 51 percent less than the conventional turbine with its major costs for the blades and support system; it is totally silent and safer for birds now flying into the blades of the conventional model; the Mini can capture up to 40 percent in ideal wind conditions (blowing about 26 miles per hour), which results in 30 percent less capture than conventional wind turbines but is compensated by the fact that double the Vortex turbines can be put into the space taken up by one propeller turbine.
The company has already raised $1 million from private capital and government funding in Spain. Yáñez says the company plans to release a four-kilowatt system in 2016 and a much larger one-megawatt device around 2018. There are, of course, still design problems to be worked out with this model, and MIT Technology Review has leapt to comment on the pros and cons of this new vortex wind turbine. First, the advantages: “[Conventional] turbine growth may be reaching its limits. Transportation is increasingly challenging because of the size of the components: individual blades and tower sections often require specialized trucks and straight, wide roads. Today’s wind turbines are also incredibly top heavy. Generators and gearboxes sitting on support towers 100 meters off the ground can weigh more than 100 tons. As the weight and height of turbines increase, the materials costs of wider, stronger support towers, as well as the cost of maintaining components housed so far from the ground, are cutting into the efficiency benefits of larger turbines.” Commenting on the disadvantages of the vortex turbine, experts point out: it captures less energy than the conventional turbine; as Vortex builds bigger, higher devices it will run into problems of turbulent vortices that make it difficult for producing energy; some doubt that the oscillating turbines will be silent—one skeptic guesses that the sound will be like a freight train passing through.
But we have enough smart people across the world to design us better sources for gathering energy than we have now. It’s a hopeful horizon. Just consider that the MIT article ends with two other proposals for designing better wind turbines—one, spinning horizontally like a merry-go-round and another, a tethered “energy kite”, flying through the air in a large circle, harnessing the wind through small onboard turbines.