In what was surely an act of cod, Caltech’s head of Biological Propulsion research Dr. John Dabiri was inspired by schools of fish to make current vertical axis wind turbines (VAWT)s more efficient.
Using the process of bioinspiration – looking for ways energy is produced in a biological system and then co-opting it for human use, Dr. Dabiri has discovered a way to increase the output of VAWTS . Best of all, fish don’t have lawyers, and we hear they’re a generous bunch, so they won’t mind if we steal their methods and re-brand them as our own.
VAWTs are a fairly recent innovation, and poised to replace the now-ubiquitous horizontal axis wind turbine (HAWT). These HAWTS aren’t so hawt, sadly, since they need be placed at least ten times their width apart in order to maximize their efficiency. If they are placed to close together, their rotation and air displacement become detrimental to their speed and energy generation. By turning this model on its side and using a vertical axis, wind turbines were able to bunch up closer to each other and to the ground, making them both more efficient and less deadly to passing birds.
But being the biological propulsion expert that he is, Dr. Dabiri wasn’t satisfied with simply “more efficient”. Instead, he started looking at fish.
As it turns out, as neighboring schools of fish move, they set up hydrodynamic interference patterns which can actually help enhance the movement speed of all the schools collectively. Dabiri also observed that the vortices created by the schools did not all rotate the same direction, and that they formed a “staircase” pattern which appeared to increase efficiency.
Applying his hydrodynamic observations to aerodynamic computer models, Dabiri and his team found that placing VAWTS closer to each other in a specific pattern caused a significant jump in turbine efficiency. Significant enough that Caltech has sprung for a parcel of land just outside of Los Angles, dubbed the Caltech Field Laboratory for Optimized Wind Energy (FLOWE), where Dabiri’s team will install six mobile VAWTS to determine which physical configuration works best. If all goes according to plan, there is the potential for an energy output increase of 10 times the amount generated by a similar bank of HAWTs placed in a row.Wind Turbine Placement: Vertical Axis Wind Turbine Creation
At this point, the focus is on data gathering, rather than power generation, but the concept seems promising. If VAWTS can not only be smaller, lower, and take up less real estate, but also generate more power than their HAWT counterparts, it could make a real impact on how North American power is generated.
Here’s hoping Dr. Dabiris fish-based foray into bioinspired power generation doesn’t need to be thrown out like so much day-old mackerel. Fish are trustworthy, right?