Whirlwinds are being used to create electricity in Atlanta, at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Mark Simpson and Ari Glezer have built a device that harnesses the temperature difference between a hot metal sheet on the ground and the cooler air a meter above.
Their system, The Solar Vortex, is made of an array of fixed blades and vanes, which funnel the airflow into a vortex, spinning a centrally-positioned turbine. Warm air rises, cold air descends, energy breaks free.
The two scientists claim their whirlwind installation is much cheaper to build and maintain than are classic wind turbines, just because they’re shorter. That makes me think they’re also safer for the bird population and much less noisy. In fact, the whole Solar Vortex system is based on solar power rather than wind.
Simpson says about his colleague Glezer that he had been inspired by this phenomenon after living in Arizona and seeing “naturally occurring dust devils and the kinetic energy they contain, and wanted to create a method for extracting that power.”
The figures that we’re to expect from this whirlwind-harvesting setup are quite satisfactory even for the hard-to-please: 50 kW of power can be harnessed from a 10-meter turbine and 16 megawatts (MW) of power per square kilometer, about 5 times more than wind turbines, which usually score three to six megawatts.
“We would like to start with building a small-scale farm of these things,” Simpson says. “At that point we start to produce real energy, and can begin to sell some of that energy and convince people of our system.”
The price of electricity generated by the Solar Vortex system will be 20 percent cheaper than current wind power and 65 percent cheaper than solar.
ARPA-E and Simpson are now working towards the implementation of the first 50 kW prototype and hope it’ll be able to spin in about two years. Even the former energy secretary, Steven Chu, is convinced by the idea, having visited the team at the ARPA-E conference in Washington last week.