To get the most out of our energy sources, innovative engineers have found inspiration from a phenomenon more often associated with widespread devastation: the tornado.
Engineers at Canada’s AVEtec Energy Corp have designed something called the Atmospheric Vortex Engine, a device they say can take waste heat from power plants and spin it into usable energy.
Traditional fossil fuel powerplants waste a significant proportion of the actual total energy they generate, with estimates suggesting that in 2011 as much as 68 percent of all energy involved in electricity generation was lost.
While the need to reduce fossil fuel use is incontrovertible, this low efficiency means there is scope to improve on current systems in order to squeeze out every last drop of energy and thereby reduce overall fossil fuel consumption. Other systems have focused on utilizing CO2 output. The tame tornado of the AVE technology takes a different approach.
Conventional systems would direct excess heat made during energy generation into cooling towers that then disperse that heat into the air. With AVE, power plants could direct the heat into an open-topped tower with a vortex engine inside.
The idea is that the tower will also draw in cooler air so that, upon hot and cold meeting, a circular current will form. In turn, the current will funnel up into what will be a controlled vortex — a twister — whereby the tornado will draw more and more air into the tower. This will turn turbines at the tower’s base. Then, and much like a conventional wind turbine but with more dramatic results, the turbines will drive a generator and produce electricity.
This technology is still in its prototype phase and at the minute the model’s engines are around 15 feet across but, by the time this system goes into production, the engines will eventually measure some 300 feet wide. This, in theory, could create tame twisters that reach as far as nine miles high.
The AVE power generation system comes with a number of advantages. It does not of itself generate carbon emissions and does not need energy storage. Admittedly, the actual manufacture of the system will likely rack up carbon emissions, but the system’s potential abilities would appear to easily balance those out, and it has been noted that the system could be installed inside existing old cooling towers, further reducing its initial footprint.
What is also interesting about this technology is that it will still work come the day when we finally switch from fossil fuels to predominately renewable energy sources like solar and water power — though it would require harnessing warm seawater — because it’s main requirement is only excess heat, and therefore this is not a technology that will become outmoded quickly.
In terms of energy, AVEtec says that the projected cost of the energy it generates could even be as low as 3 cents per kilowatt hour.
This, if it holds true, would make AVEtec systems one of the least expensive forms of energy production. For comparison, coal would often be about 4-5 cents per hour and comes with all those wider environmental costs, too. In turn, AVE power is predicted to yield as much as 200 megawatts of electrical power. That’s roughly in line with conventional coal power stations.
There is, of course, a substantial “but” here.
The AVEtec system has been floating around, you’ll pardon the pun, since 2000 and though it does fall in line with what appears to be possible under the paradigm of modern technology, it has mostly only generated raised eyebrows. That said, the Thiel foundation recently invested $300,000 in the technology. The foundation is the namesake of Peter Thiel, the billionaire who co-founded PayPal. AVEtec has also recently garnered renewed interest after the company was able to build a working proof of concept model, demonstrating that this isn’t just a pipe dream.
Louis Michaud, the Canadian engineer behind the AVEtec system, told NBC News earlier this year that the Thiel investment “will allow us to carry out well documented development experiments in an academic environment. Such results are required to get financial and power industry support to move to the next stage.”
So are we likely to see controlled tornadoes helping to power our homes any time soon? No, but the prospect that we might one day harness this so-called twister technology certainly is exciting.
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