If you don’t like wind turbines, a Spanish engineer has a new idea for renewable wind energy that creates no noise and uses no blades
When he was in an engineering class at Valladolid University in Spain, David Yáñez watched the famous 1940 film reel of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, a suspension span that twists and buckles in the wind as if it were made of silk ribbon instead of concrete and steel.
The bridge collapsed that same year, only a few months after being completed.
The story is often used as a cautionary lesson: Because the designers didn’t properly account for the principle of resonance frequency, the bridge basically flapped itself apart in a strong wind. Moving over the bridge, the wind created an extremely powerful oscillation. Most people see a catastrophic engineering disaster when they watch that footage, but David saw an opportunity. He thought to himself, “That bridge is collecting a very important amount of energy. I wonder if there’s a way to create a technology that could take advantage of it.”
David set about inventing something himself.
“Even though the seed of the idea came from a bridge,” he says. “we realised a vertical structure is able to reach winds far from the ground, and therefore at stronger speeds.”
In 2002, David drafted patents for what is essentially a bladeless wind turbine, whose oscillations would generate electricity silently and with a lower visual profile than that of typical bladed wind turbines. The device is cylindrical and attached to a fixed base. Even a small amount of wind can cause it to oscillate. It’s technically not a turbine —it has no gears and no need for lubricants. As in conventional wind turbines, an alternator is used to transform movement into electricity.
The soul sister of solar power
The current prototypes, called Nano Vortexes, are about 85 centimetres high, and only create enough energy to charge a cell phone or light a small LED array.
In the company’s vision, larger versions of the Vortex Bladeless device would be ideal for generating energy in populated areas, especially if used in concert with solar power. Potentially, Vortex generators mounted on a roof in conjunction with solar panels could produce enough energy to make a house self-sufficient.
“They are very synergistic technologies because at night there’s more wind and in the daytime the panels are collecting sunlight,” David says. “Also, the visual and noise impact is very low, and the cost is low.”
A further advantage is that the electricity is produced on site — there is no need for long transmission systems.
The start-up, called Vortex Bladeless, officially came into being in 2014. The company holds five patents on the invention.
In the beginning, Vortex received help from some angel investors, as well as a key grant from the Repsol Foundation to develop the technology, and since then other investors and institutions have offered support.
Vortex Bladeless was one of the prize winners in the 2021 Social Innovation Tournament. The contest was created by the European Investment Bank Institute to support entrepreneurs who are helping the environmental or society. Vortex won the opportunity to attend an INSEAD Social Entrepreneurship Programme. It has won numerous other awards, and the European Commission is providing funding for Vortex’s work with its Horizon 2020 programme for research and innovation.
Next step: large amounts of green power
The company, with a team of six, is now making a series of 100 of the Vortex Nanos. These devices will be going to research institutions, laboratories, cities, national parks, and partner companies in Spain and around the world. The idea is to gather data about how they perform in different settings and find ways to improve performance.
The next step would be the Vortex Tacoma, a new model about 2.75 meters high that is named after the bridge that inspired the project. The Tacoma would be more practical for producing larger amounts of electricity. The company even envisions creating giant Vortex wind generators that could go on floating platforms at sea.
The company is focusing on providing electricity to people in developed areas.
“We’re hoping to fill a gap in the area of decentralised electricity; I think that’s the key,” says Rodrigo Rupérez, the chief executive at Vortex Bladeless. “We see how the price of electricity is going up right now and how consumption is increasing. It fits perfectly with what we can offer the market.”
Rodrigo’s previous work has taken him to Bolivia and to areas in Africa where there is little or no access to electricity. He’s hopeful creating power in remote areas is another aspect of Vortex Bladeless that could serve a larger purpose.
“This can change the lives of those people, improve education, improve wealth, improve life in general,” he says.
David hopes the company can contribute to positive change at a pivotal moment.
“We’re living in a very disruptive moment, with a lot of different ingredients: artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, blockchain, clean energy,” he says. “Put together, this is going to change the way humans beings are living, and we would love to be part of this new, cleaner way of life.”