The Future of Wind Turbines? No Blades
It’s no longer suprising to encounter 100-foot pinwheels spinning in the breeze as you drive down the highway. But don’t get too comfortable with that view. A Spanish company called Vortex Bladeless is proposing a radical new way to generate wind energy that will once again upend what you see outside your car window.
Their idea is the Vortex, a bladeless wind turbine that looks like a giant rolled joint shooting into the sky. The Vortex has the same goals as conventional wind turbines: To turn breezes into kinetic energy that can be used as electricity. But it goes about it in an entirely different way.
Instead of capturing energy via the circular motion of a propeller, the Vortex takes advantage of what’s known as vorticity, an aerodynamic effect that produces a pattern of spinning vortices. Vorticity has long been considered the enemy of architects and engineers, who actively try to design their way around these whirlpools of wind. And for good reason: With enough wind, vorticity can lead to an oscillating motion in structures, which, in some cases, like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, can cause their eventual collapse.
Where designers see danger, Vortex Bladeless’s founders—David Suriol, David Yáñez, and Raul Martín—sees opportunity. “We said, ‘Why don’t we try to use this energy, not avoid it,’” Suriol says. The team started Vortex Bladeless in 2010 as a way to turn this vibrating energy into something productive. They just launched a crowdfunding campaignto raise awareness of the technology.
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.
Its makers boast the fact that there are no gears, bolts, or mechanically moving parts, which they say makes the Vortex cheaper to manufacture and maintain. The founders claim their Vortex Mini, which stands at around 41 feet tall, can capture up to 40 percent of the wind’s power during ideal conditions (this is when the wind is blowing at around 26 miles per hour). Based on field testing, the Mini ultimately captures 30 percent less than conventional wind turbines, but that shortcoming is compensated by the fact that you can put double the Vortex turbines into the same space as a propeller turbine.
The Vortex team says there are some clear advantages to their model: It’s less expensive to manufacture, totally silent, and safer for birds since there are no blades to fly into. Vortex Bladeless says its turbine would cost around 51 percent less than a traditional turbine whose major costs come from the blades and support system. Plus, Suriol says, it’s pretty cool-looking. “It looks like asparagus,” he says. “It’s much more natural.”
The company has already raised $1 million from private capital and government funding in Spain, and they have plans to close a round in the United States soon. There’s enough interest, Suriol says, that he fields upward of 200 emails a day from people inquiring about the turbine. Of course, the technology still has a ways to go. 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. The Mini, it’s 41-foot counterpart, will be ready in a year.
For the time being, you’ll continue seeing pinwheels dotting the landscape, which Suriol is actually happy about. “We can’t say anything bad about conventional wind turbines; they’re great machines,” he says. “We’re just proposing a new way, a different way.”