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Schooling Fish, Cyclists And A New Kind Of Wind Energy

Researchers in fluid dynamics at CalTech are observing the behavior of schooling fish and cycling teams to develop ways to make wind energy more efficient.

Four vertical-axis wind turbines.

Photo: Devon Bank

Having turbines that spin on their ends allows for many more of them to be packed into a smaller area.

windmill

Photo: Devon Bank

Researchers are coming up with new ideas to harness these bitter gusts of wind to create energy.

Researchers in fluid dynamics at CalTech are observing the behavior of schooling fish and cycling teams to develop ways to make wind energy more efficient.

“What it would allow is that for the same amount of land you would be able to get a significant amount of power – more so than what we can now,” Robert Whittlesey said.

Whittlesey and John Dabiri are working to design ways to use wind turbines more effectively.

A Different Kind Of Wind Turbine

Whittlesey explains that they are not experimenting with horizontal-axis wind turbines — those are the ones that look like pinwheels – because they take up a lot of space on the ground.

“There are these vertical axis wind turbines and they’re different because instead of spin around like a clock, they actually spin on their end. Imagine like a top,” he said.

This is where bicycles and fish come into play. The members of a cycling team position themselves in respect to one another to be more aerodynamic as a group. That’s precisely what scientists are trying to do with these vertical-axis turbines.

“They are different in that they are actually less efficient individually,” Whittlesey said, “but these configurations we play around with suggest we can get great improvement.”

Great improvement in capturing energy from the wind over what is currently possible.

Location, Location, Location

Whittlesey said that having turbines that spin on their ends also allows for many more of them to be packed into a smaller area – which is great for more densely populated areas. Wind energy may soon have a more prominent role in cities.

“Location is important because you incur a lot of difficulties with transporting energy. That’s why it’s better to have energy closest to where you’re using it.”

Megan Meyer

Megan Meyer was in the company of foodies for most of her formative years. She spent all of her teens working at her town's natural food co-op in South Dakota, and later when she moved to Minneapolis, worked as a produce maven for the nation's longest running collectively-managed food co-op. In 2006, she had the distinct pleasure (and pain) of participating the vendanges, or grape harvest, in the Beaujolais terroire of France, where she developed her compulsion to snip off grape clusters wherever they may hang. In the spring of 2008, Megan interned on NPR's Science Desk in Washington, D.C., where she aided in the coverage of science, health and food policy stories. She joined Indiana Public Media in June, 2009.

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