From destruction comes creation: tornadoes harnessed to produce renewable energy

The word ‘tornado’ is, for the most part, closely associated with negativity, with chaos, danger, death and destruction. It is not often that they are framed in a positive light. But thanks to the work of two engineers working in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, the destructive power of a tornado could be harnessed and put to good use, no longer a thing of devastation and ruin, but rather of regeneration and productivity.

Ari Glezer and Mark Simpson, mechanical engineers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, have done exactly that, by creating small, controlled whirlwinds – or vortices – that can be used to produce cheap renewable energy. The inspiration for their idea came from the dust devils that Glezer discovered during time spent living in Arizona. “[He] had experienced naturally occurring dust devils and the kinetic energy they contain,” explained Simpson, “and wanted to create a method for extracting that power.”

Glezer and Simpson’s product is known as the ‘Solar Vortex,’ and is based upon the basic principles of convection which are contributory to the formation of whirlwinds. When hot air is close to the ground, it rises, just as cooler air above it descends. As the hot air rises and cool air falls, convection currents form between the layers of cool and warm air, giving rise to small whirlwinds.

The Solar Vortex system is comprised of a series of blades and vanes which help to recreate these convection currents. The blades act as a funnel, channelling the sun-heated air into a vortex, which turns a turbine at the centre of the device. As the warm air rises, extra air is sucked into the vortex to replace it, meaning that the vortex is constantly renewed, providing a cheap, renewable source of energy. The Solar Vortex does not even require a power source to jump the whole process into action, as the way the vanes are positioned helps the vortex to start spontaneously.

Glezer and Simpson’s Solar Vortex began, as most projects do, on a small scale. The initial turbine was just one metre long, and used nothing more than a hot, sun-baked sheet of metal to create no more than a few watts of power. But despite its humble beginnings, the creators of the Solar Vortex have big plans for their invention. Glezer and Simpson believe that when scaled up, the power output will increase dramatically, and estimate that a ten-metre long turbine could generate up to 50 kilowatts of power using the same method. The team suggested that, in turn, a whole spread of turbines could produce as many as 16 megawatts per square kilometre they cover, a huge improvement when compared with the electricity produced by standard wind turbines, which currently generate an average of 3-6 megawatts per square kilometre, representing a fantastic development in the renewable energy world.

The advantages of the Solar Vortex are not limited to their large predicted power output. Glezer and Simpson also stated that installation and maintenance costs would be much lower than for conventional wind farms, as they are smaller and lower to the ground, and do not require the technical and often difficult elevation required by wind turbines in order to harness the wind. Not only is the Solar Vortex itself a steadier piece of equipment, but its energy output will also be steadier than other renewable energy sources, as ground temperature varies very little throughout the day, and stays constant for a few hours after sunset as well. And if you wanted the advantages quantified, the team predicts that the Solar Vortex system would be 20% cheaper than wind turbine energy, and 60% cheaper than solar power.

Whilst Glezer and Simpson’s turbine currently only exists on a small scale, the future is bright for the Solar Vortex. The Advanced Research Projects Agency Energy (ARPA-E) has agreed to put up funding for larger-scale trials of the turbine. Simpson himself is due to present a paper at the ASME International Conference on Energy Sustainability in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in July, describing the results of the trials. Working in conjunction with the ARPA-E, Simpson and Glezer hope to have a 50 kilowatt system in production within two years. Speaking about his plans for the future, Simpson said: “we would like to start with building a small-scale farm of these things. At that point we start to produce real energy, and can begin to sell some of that energy and convince people of our system.”

Sources include the New Scientist

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