Wind Around the World

When we think wind turbine, the first thing that probably comes to mind is a large, three-bladed structure in the middle of nowhere.  While this is the most common system for harvesting wind power on a large scale, there are many other options when dealing with small-scale devices.  The following video from the Popular Mechanics 2007 “Breakthrough Awards” [1] describes such a device:

A vibrating belt or “windbelt” forces small magnets to fluctuate.  The electromagnetic energy can be translated to electricity to power lamps and other devices like radios that do not require a large amount of power.

The young inventor, Shawn Frayne, is working to produce his windbelts in mass quantities.  As the video shows, his invention is very simple, compact, and does not require any materials that are scarce in the United States since the belt is simply Mylar coated taffeta [2].  If distributed to homes in third world countries, the windbelt could deliver free electricity to families that would otherwise go without.  Furthermore, if the manufacturers added capacitors to store the energy, it could offset the intermittency of wind and supply electricity on a more consistent basis.  Frayne was working on his invention in Haiti, but other countries like Nicaragua have proven to be even more suitable for wind power.  With “40 percent of the land area suitable for windmills” in Nicaragua and Mongolia, even more would be suitable for small-scale devices for individual homes [3].

Sometimes goods and services are even more important than directly sending money.  The windbelt is one small idea and may not even be able to provide enough power in the long run, but renewable energy may be the key to advancing third world countries because they are more self-sustainable than other forms of energy.  Of the trillions of dollars in the U.S. budget, it could be a helpful investment to devote a larger portion to wind power in places where the technology could transform the nation.

[1] http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/industry/4224763.html

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PET_film_%28biaxially_oriented%29

[3] http://www.commondreams.org/headlines05/1205-07.htm

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Wind Around the World

  1. Christopher

    As someone who is researching the localization of energy production, I find this method of harnessing wind power very interesting; it’s quite clever to take advantage of the energy contained in an element undergoing harmonic oscillation. I would imagine that implementing a five-meter long unit in a residential setting could potentially offset a considerable amount of electricity usage from the regional grid.

    The idea seems scalable as well, which allows for broad usage possibilities. An oscillating element the size of a bridge would probably produce a large amount of usable electricity. However, there would no doubt be material hurdles for elements of that size.

    A consideration I have is that resonance frequency of the oscillating element is likely to be highly dependent on wind speed and its invariance. I would imagine a highly non-linear relationship between current output and wind speed, which could pose issues.

  2. byrnemd

    This technology seems to be quite promising at first glance. The device produces about 40 mW at a wind speed of ~10 mph. Looking at the global wind resource map (http://c0402442.cdn.cloudfiles.rackspacecloud.com/static/ttcms/1.0.0.40/us/images/support/maps/3tier_5km_global_wind.jpg) we can see the equivalent wind speeds for functionality in the colors green and yellow. There does seem to be quite a large area for these speeds in developing nations, so this seems to confirm its viability. However, it is important to note that 40 mW is only enough to power 1 traditional LED, or maybe a hearing aid; but only when the wind blows.

    This is the primary problem to overcome: intermittency of operation. Simple, small and cheap capacitors are designed to discharge in under 1 sec, not maintain output over lengthy periods. The device could be used to charge rechargeable batteries, but this seems to be somewhat inefficient. The windbelt loses some of its elegance and simplicity in design when these other solutions are added. People in developing nations do not want or need gizmos that are fickle in output and functionality. For example, this device is not as reliable or as powerful as a traditional handcrank generator, so why should they use it?

    I do think the idea is a great one, and if these can be coupled together to operate in series, it could bring significant improvement to developing areas. I disagree that scaling up the design would be worthwhile, since it would be quite difficult to build in rural areas with limited supplies. Furthermore, the device operates on high frequency vibrations, which would only decrease for a given windspeed as you scale up. The windbelt is simple, stand alone, compact (easy to ship), and requires no real maintenance. These characteristics are what make the device attractive. I will be interested to see how it comes to market and if it can be effectively implemented to operate for meaningful time lengths.

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