Innovative Spirit

This Apartment-Size Wind Turbine Makes Use of Gusts Coming From All Directions

Winner of this year’s James Dyson Award, the O-Wind Turbine is designed for the chaotic wind patterns of urban environments

(James Dyson Award)
smithsonian.com

James Dyson and the team at the James Dyson Foundation announced today the winner of the 2018 Dyson Award, selecting a small, omnidirectional wind turbine out of 20 international finalists. Called O-Wind, this soft globe hangs suspended between cables, above and below, and spins around a vertical axis whether the wind is coming from above, below or from the side.

“The complicated shape takes wind and makes it go through tunnels, and creates pressure differences … which makes it spin always the same direction,” says inventor Nicolas Orellana, a recent Lancaster University master’s of science graduate who now works full time on O-Wind.

Orellana developed the first O-Wind prototype not as a generator, but as a wind-driven rover that could travel efficiently across flat deserts. Along with partner Yaseen Noorani, who he knew from Lancaster, Orellana realized the same principle could be used for power generation. Wide vents throughout the ball, facing different directions, siphon wind through smaller vents, kind of like a bunch of parafoils twisted together into a ball. The pressure differences from the wide vents to the small ones make the device rotate around a single axis due to Bernoulli’s principle.

That spin can power an electric generator, connected to the ball by a rod, and Orellana envisions the 25-centimeter orbs strung up on apartment building balconies, taking advantage of chaotic wind patterns to power people’s homes, sell energy back to the grid or tap into feed-in-tariffs like the ones offered in the UK for homeowners who help create green energy.

The two main types of turbines in the world today both rotate only when wind hits them face-on. Traditional, horizontal turbines look like windmills, and can turn to face incoming wind, but not wind coming from above or below. Generators with vertically oriented blades can fit into smaller spaces, but are less efficient and still operate only under wind in the horizontal plane.

“If you put a wind turbine on your balcony, you’re not only going to get horizontal wind,” says Orellana. “In that position, you can also get vertical winds or diagonal winds, and it changes in every situation. With this one … it can work more continuously, and provide much more energy to your house.”

The Dyson Awards are given to students or graduates within four years of a university program, who have built viable, innovative, original tools or devices that solve a particular problem, from small to large, and who can demonstrate a physical prototype. As first-place winners, Orellana and Noorani will receive $40,000, which they’ll be able to invest in the project any way they choose. “The money we give them is as much an investment in the people that have done the projects as it is in the projects,” says Chris Vincent, a senior design engineer at Dyson who helps select finalists for the award. “We have this ability to, from a distance, help some really really impressive pioneering and up and coming engineers and designers.”

O-Wind comes out of a class of finalists with a wide variety of inventions, from a wearable medical device that monitors medical fluid drains for infection to a wastewater recovery system for power plants, and even a prefabricated ant nest (for producing ants either for human consumption or to feed to livestock) and a plastic fork made from potato waste. One of the major trends, though, is toward devices that will address inefficiencies, living standards, and environmental issues in urban settings. O-Wind fits this category, as does Orca, an autonomous lake cleaning robot, and Lighthouse, a small, soft, leak-detecting robot that travels through pipes to prevent water main breaks, as well as several others.

“Those are kind of trying to work around this constant growth of cities we see, all around the world,” says Vincent. “Although the growth of those cities can come with a certain amount of increased efficiency and improved connection and communication between people, because you’ve got so many things stacking on top of each other it can often mean that inefficiencies creep into the system.”

Orellana and Noorani have built functional prototypes for O-Wind, but they’re still experimenting with size and material. First, it was a rover, not even ball shaped, but capable of traveling across a beach. They tried 3D printing a plastic one, but it took three months, and in the intervening time they built one from cardboard and paper, which wound up performing better in a wind tunnel than the plastic one anyway. But there are still many questions. Is the current, 25 centimeter diameter best? Should it be made from paper, cardboard or 3D printed plastic? These questions will also help determine how much the device might cost. The two inventors are hoping to see adoption of the technology by millions of people, thanks in part to publicity from the award and a patent they’ve applied for.

“We hope that O-Wind Turbine will improve the usability and affordability of turbines for people across the world,” says Orellana. “Cities are windy places, but we are currently not harnessing this resource. Our belief is that if we make it easier to generate green energy, people will be encouraged to play a bigger own role in conserving our planet.”

About Nathan Hurst

Nathan Hurst blends a love of storytelling with a passion for science and the outdoors, covering technology, the environment, and much more. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Wired, Outside, Make: and Smithsonian.

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