Wind power is mostly associated with sweeping white blades, taking advantage of the strong gusts that blow over the land or the sea. But what if we could forget about the blades and even the wind and instead just have a turbine? That’s the idea of a group of European companies, who have come up with new ways to expand wind energy without the limitations of a conventional turbine.
Wind has gradually turned into a leading energy source around the globe, with costs dropping every year. But turbines can be problematic: they’re unsuited for some areas, they can harm birds, and they’re not recyclable. This has led green energy pioneers to start thinking of ways to reinvent wind power – even forgoing the need for the blades in a tower.
In Spain, the small startup Vortex Bladeless has come up with a design that can create energy from winds without the actual blades. The company claims not to be against traditional windfarms but instead hopes to fill the gaps in locations where traditional wind farms may not be appropriate, such as in urban or residential areas.
“We hope to offer people the possibility of harvesting the wind that passes over their roofs or through gardens and parks with devices that are cheaper to install and easier to maintain than conventional wind turbines,” David Yañez, Vortex co-founded, said in a statement. “Bladeless turbines can adapt more quickly to changes in wind direction than conventional ones.”
Vortex’s design of a turbine is similar to a slender wobbling or oscillating cylinder. The device has only a few moving parts, doesn’t need much maintenance, generates very little noise and is relatively easy to install. The company argues the turbine also has less visual effect and impact on wildlife compared to conventional bladed turbines.
Instead of relying on the wind to move a blade, Vortex’s device oscillates as the air passes around it and vortices build up behind – a process known as vortex shedding. As the wind blows and vortices build up, a lightweight cylinder affixed vertically to an elastic rod oscillates on its base, where an alternator converts the mechanical movement into electricity.
Initial tests by Vortex suggested that their device can generate electricity about 30% cheaper than conventional wind turbines on a levelized cost of energy basis. This is largely because of the lower installation costs and the minimal maintenance requirements. Still, the turbine so far developed is small and Vortex is now looking for an industrial partner to create a larger one.
“Our machine has no gears, brakes, bearings, or shafts. It does not need lubrication and has no parts that can be worn down by friction. Thanks to being very lightweight and having the center of gravity closer to the ground, anchoring or foundation requirements have been reduced significantly compared to regular turbines, easing installation,” Yáñez said in a statement.
Other companies are taking similar steps across Europe, with high hopes of expanding wind energy. Alpha 311, a UK organization, has developed a small vertical wind turbine that they claim can generate electricity without wind. The turbine, made of recycled plastic, fits on to existing streetlights and generates electricity as passing cars displace the air.
The company argues that each turbine could generate as much electricity as 20 squared meters of solar panels, more than enough electricity to keep the streetlight on and help power the local energy grid. As a starting point, Alpha 311 will install a scaled-down version of the turbine in the 02 Arena in London, an entertainment venue, that will generate enough electricity for its visitors.
“While our turbines can be placed anywhere, the optimal location is next to a highway, where they can be fitted onto existing infrastructure. There’s no need to dig anything up, as they can attach to the lighting columns that are already there and use the existing cabling to feed directly into the grid,” Mike Shaw, a spokesperson for the company, told The Guardian.
Meanwhile, in Germany, the startup SkySails hopes to use an airborne design to harness wind power directly from the sky. The company builds fully automated kites that can fly up to 400 meters to capture wind power. As it goes up, the kite pulls a rope secured to a winch and a generator on the ground. Electricity is generated as the kite goes up into the sky.
The design can generate a maximum capacity of 100 to 200 kilowatts, but the company hopes to increase the output from kilowatts to megawatts. Stephan Wrage, the chief executive of SkySails, told The Guardian that the technology has a minimal impact on people and the environment, “working very quietly” and with “no visible effects on the landscape.