By David Ferris
Illustration: Brown Bird Design
Perhaps wind generators could be installed on a building like solar panels. That's the idea behind the vibro-wind panel, a device invented at Cornell University. It's made up of chunks of foam mounted on rods that wobble like crazy when the wind blows—making a facade appear to flutter.
The mechanical energy of the foam oscillators is converted to electricity. Aerospace and mechanical engineering professor emeritus Frank Moon, who in 2010 led Cornell's Vibro-Wind Research Group, estimates that a 25-square-foot panel in 22-mile-per-hour winds could create as much electricity as a similarly sized commercial solar panel. A more advanced model could be optimized to induce an event known as "galloping," when the oscillators move rapidly even at low wind speed.
Daryoush Allaei grew up in Abadan, Iran, where a breeze off the Persian Gulf, 33 miles away, sometimes delivered relief from the hot summers. While the smokestacks of one of the world's largest oil refineries distinguished the skyline, Allaei was more impressed by far older Persian structures that looked like chimneys but served an entirely different purpose: the neighborhood wind catchers.
Allaei's grandfather had one of these wind catchers, which captured sea breezes and piped them to the basements of homes. The cool air would circulate upward and make the interior temperature bearable.
As an adult, Allaei immigrated to the United States and earned his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, with a specialty in controlling industrial noise and vibration. At one point, he evaluated a big commercial wind turbine, and he puzzled over its top-heavy design. "These turbines sometimes weigh over 150 tons and are 100 or 120 meters [328 to 393 feet] high. It didn't make sense," says Allaei, 56.
In a parking lot next to his office at Sheerwind, in Chaska, Minnesota, Allaei is building the Invelox, a next-generation wind harvester (see above). His 90-foot-tall device could create the same amount of power as a 1.8-megawatt commercial wind tower, but at a third of the height, on a seventh of the land, and with a turbine more than eight times smaller in diameter. And he says the electricity would be at least 40 percent cheaper, partly because the air chamber cranks up in the faintest of breezes—even those less than two miles per hour, which is a quarter of the wind speed needed to drive a traditional turbine.
Allaei has proposed a collapsible aluminum-and-fabric model that could be air-dropped and assembled at military outposts or in disaster areas. Another version could be built as part of a commercial building, its ducts installed the same way that HVAC machinery is now.
It wasn't until he was well along in designing the Invelox that Allaei realized he was updating the wind catchers of his youth. This time around, though, the power could help retire those fossil fuel refineries for good.
This article was funded by the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign.