Is it possible to transform the awesome power of tornadoes into a viable clean energy source?
Paypal co-founder and early Facebook backer Peter Thiel thinks it is. Thiel Foundation's Breakout Labs program has given Canadian company AVEtec Energy Corporation a $300,000 grant to develop a prototype "Atmospheric Vortex Engine," which would use man-made tornadoes to produce energy.
The idea is to harness waste heat from thermal power plants to create an additional source of electricity - one that costs less than $0.03 cents per kilowatt-hour to produce.
Here's how the company describes the technology:
"An atmospheric vortex engine uses a controlled vortex to capture mechanical energy produced when heat is carried upward by convection in the atmosphere. A tornado-like vortex is produced by admitting warm or humid air tangentially into a circular arena. Tangential entries cause the warm moist air to spin as it rises forming an anchored convective vortex. The work of convection is captured with turbines located at ground level around the periphery of the arena. The heat source can be solar energy, warm water or waste heat."
The resulting vortex is actually more like a dust devil or a waterspout. It acts like a low-cost virtual chimney, one that is controlled and anchored to its heat source.
The photo below shows a small-scale example of what the system looks like.
The prototype being developed by AVEtec and its partner, Lambton College, will be 40 meters high with a diameter of 30 centimeters. The test system will be used to drive a 1-meter diameter turbine. Power output increases geometrically according to the size of the vortex.
"The real prize will be using a large-scale AVE to drive turbines," says Louis Michaud, the inventor and president of AVEtec. "Using the low-temperature waste heat from a 500 MW thermal power plant could generate an additional 200 MW of power, increasing the capacity by 40% and producing perfectly green electricity at less than three cents per kilowatt-hour."
The prototype being funded by Breakout Labs should be operational by 2013. A 40-meter diameter prototype is planned by 2015.
For more about AVEtec: