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Reinventing the Wind Turbine

Fri, 05/10/2013 - 5:23pm
Chris Fox, Managing Editor

Steve Apelman’s design finds itself on the cusp of overshadowing existing tech with a simple approach.

Green energy is the wave of the future, but more often than not the technology is sadly disappointing when it comes to output and high price-point. Wind energy, in and of itself, seems like a cheap means to utilize a never-ending resource, but turbines are massive, expensive, and don’t produce huge amounts of energy. That’s why there are fields full of massive propellers, attempting to catch a breeze.

A New-Age Design

Traditional wind turbines resemble old Dutch windmills, with massive propeller-like blades. Vertical axis turbines have made some emergence, but with little impact on the power grid. Steve Apelman, President at Macro Electronics Corp., has a vertical turbine design that he says can capture nearly the full power of a moving wind air mass.

Apelman’s design utilizes four broad panels that are 100 by 50 ft in size – dimensions that could be customized. Apelman explains, “If you’ve ever tried to hold up a four by eight sheet of plywood in the wind, if it’s blowing more than 2 mph, you can’t do it.” The most challenging issue with a panel design like this, is that the mechanism needs to spin. This is why most current vertical axis turbine designs have an elegant and fragile appearance, as they need to sheer the wind on one side, while collecting it on the other.

Apelman used his pet bird’s flight style for inspiration. “When [my parrot] goes to lift his wing, his musculature twists his feathers so that the air goes through the wing. Then, on the way down, his muscles twist the feathers and they snap shut. He was able to create lift with his wings, and that is what inspired me to make the air-diode,” he explains. “Then it occurred to me that if he had done it where one side had resistance and the other none, he would twist around his center of gravity.”

The air-diode design allows wind to pass through virtually uninhibited on one side, while the opposite side is pressed shut. This allows the turbine to spin independent of the wind direction. Also, the air-diode elements are manufactured to have an inherent limit to their resistance to the wind, so they automatically protect themselves against potentially damaging wind velocities. This vertical turbine design allows for a very high torque system that requires less supervision than conventional turbines.

Counterweights & Storage

As the turbine spins, weights are slowly lifted and held to store kinetic energy. “Cuckoo Clocks have been using gravity as a regulator for 500 years,” explains Apelman. “There’s no need to speed regulate my turbine design because of the counterweight mechanism. It doesn’t matter how slow the turbine spins because it is always lifting the weight and storing the kinetic energy.” The wind lifts the weights, while the weights, when released and allowed to slowly fall, are the mechanisms that turn the generator.

“All you need in this situation is a CV transmission, where if you need a little bit more energy, it just shifts,” says Apelman. The stored torque goes through a CVT and into the generator shaft. The system would utilize an uptake clutch and a storage clutch where the storage clutch can’t be energized at the same time as the uptake. If the turbine is putting out torque, the torque should go into an uptake that’s pulling up a weight. “All the while, the generator is being fed by one of the weights that’s being lowered, or multiple weights that are being lowered, depending on how much energy you want to get out at the time,” he says.

According to Apelman, this counterweight system would significantly improve the efficiency of wind turbines, and when paired with his diode design, could change the wind collection industry. “[Traditional, horizontal turbines] don’t store energy, they have to waste a lot of energy to regulate themselves, and they have to turn into the direction of the wind. These are significant problems because the energy output is dismal to begin with,” he explains.

The Problem with Efficiency

Most traditional wind turbines normalize their power by using some form of electronic regulation, which uses power. They also have to rotate the massive blades when the wind changes direction, another function that uses power. All of these things reduce the overall efficiency of the wind turbines.

Beyond mechanical efficiency of operation, Apelman explains how the current wind turbine design is inefficient at wind collection, as well. “[Traditional turbines] have a wingspan of around 220 ft, which is somewhere around 3,600 m2 of influence. But then if you think about it, wind is blowing past this thing, and only has three blades, which only represent 11% of the surface area.” Even though the blade can spin around 3,600 m2, you’re only exposing the blade to around 400 m2 of wind at any one time.”

Apelman feels that a spin tends to be placed on efficiencies so as to color the numbers, in a sense. “So if you have 3,600 m2 of air blowing past a point, how much energy are you actually getting when you plug in your vacuum cleaner? When you look at that perspective, the efficiency is dismal [with traditional turbines]. You can’t get governments to give you money when you present efficiencies like that. It all depends on how you want to define things.”

The disadvantages of Apelman’s design fall in the number of moving parts. With moving weights and multiple clutch systems, there could be a larger burden when it comes to quality and maintenance. “I made the device very serviceable, and the parts are simple and inexpensive,” says Apelman. So, as he sees it, this isn’t an insurmountable problem.

Disruptive Technology

Though the green energy market is full of varying wind turbine models that utilize both horizontal and vertical orientations, Apelman’s design finds itself on the cusp of overshadowing existing tech with a simple approach.

“There hasn’t been a significant improvement in wind turbine design in 20 years, with good reason,” he says. “You can try to make the blades out of different materials and fibers and all this nonsense, and you can make the generators a little bit smaller, but they all have the same basic flaws.” Perhaps the winds of change are poised to blow in Apelman’s direction. As with any disruptive technology, we shall see.

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