Retired scientist Louis Michaud has plans to generate tornadoes near power plants that could provide a 40% increase in the plants' power output. If the concept works, it could dramatically cut down on the need for building new power plants, instead creating energy from the waste heat of existing plants.
Michaud is president of AVEtec Energy Corporation, a company based in Ontario. He has recently received a $30,000 grant from Ontario's Center for Energy that will enable him to continue building larger prototypes of the tornado - or, what he calls "the atmospheric vortex engine" (or AVE, as in the name of the company). Michaud is also in the process of applying for a $3 million grant from Ontario's Ministry of Innovation.
The vortex engine is a large cylindrical structure with an open top, and works similar to a fireplace and chimney. To create a tornado, warm air mixes with cold air. In Michaud's set-up, the warm air comes from the waste heat of a coal plant - but heat could also conceivably come from the sun or other ambient heat source. Currently, the waste steam from power plants is cooled in towers that cost $20 million.
The Atmospheric Vortex Engine. Credit: Louis Michaud.
When the hot air enters the large cylinder, it rises through the central chamber due to convection. As it rises, the hot air passes through angled ducts that cause the air to rotate like a tornado. Turbines positioned on the sides of the chamber convert the upward wind into electricity. A long as heat continues to be supplied, the tornado is self-sustaining.
For a cylinder with a diameter of 200 m and a height of 100 m, Michaud explains that the tornado could be 50 m in diameter at its base and extend up to the tropopause, which is about 36,000 feet (nearly 7 miles) high. Such a tornado could generate anywhere between 50 to 500 megawatts of electrical power. Or, when combined with a 500-megawatt power plant, the tornado could increase the plant's output by 40%, up to 700 megawatts. That's enough to power a city of about a half million people.
Because the conditions can be tightly controlled, the energy that could be produced by a tornado vortex would be much greater than the energy from normal winds captured by wind turbines. In fact, Michaud predicts, the cost of electrical energy produced with a vortex engine could be just half the cost of any other alternative energy system.
One frequent concern of the vortex machine is safety and containment. However, because the tornado needs a steady supply of heat at its base - much hotter than normal ground temperature - it's very unlikely that the tornado could "escape." But if a strong wind came along and threatened to blow the tornado off its base, an operator could either switch the waste heat off, cutting off the tornado's heat source, or - in the worst case - douse the area with cold water.
So far, Michaud has only built a small scale model of the system in his lab. With the recent grant, he plans to build several scale models starting with a four-meter version, and finally a commercial-scale prototype. His first demonstration should be ready later this spring in Sarnia, Ontario.
Much more research needs to be done before determining if Michaud's calculations prove to be on the mark, but the concept has potential: using waste heat from current power plants to increase their own energy output, and doing it (ultimately) less expensively than getting rid of the waste heat in the first place.
More information: AVEtec Energy Corp's Web site