Typhoon-Tough Turbines Withstand Wild Winds

It’s really beginning to feel as though the problem of climate change is a huge boulder rolling down a steep hill, and we have the Sisyphean task of trying to reverse it. While we definitely need to switch as much of the planet over to clean, green energy as soon as possible, the deployment should be strategic. You know, solar panels in sunny places, and wind turbines in windy places. And for the most part, we’re already doing that.

A test unit in Okinawa, Japan. Image via Challenergy

In the meantime, there are also natural disasters to deal with, some of which are worsened by climate change. Eastern and Southeast Asian countries are frequently under the threat of typhoons that bring strong, turbulent winds with them. Once the storms pass, they leave large swaths of lengthy power outages in their wake.

Studies have shown that these storms are gaining strength over the years, leading to more frequent disruption of existing power systems in those areas. Wind power is the ideal solution where storms have come through and knocked out traditional power delivery all over a region. As long as the turbines themselves can stand up to the challenge, they can be used to power micro-grids when other delivery is knocked out.

Bring On the Typhoons?

Unfortunately, the conventional three-bladed wind turbines you see dotting the plains can’t stand up to the awesome power of typhoons. But vertical axis wind turbines can. Though they have been around for many years, they may have finally found their niche.

A Japanese startup called Challenergy wants to face the challenge of typhoons head on. They’ve built a vertical axis wind turbine that’s built to not only to withstand typhoon-level winds, it’s designed to make the most of them. Instead of horizontally-situated blades arranged like spokes or flower petals, these turbines have vertical cylinders that collect wind by harnessing the Magnus effect.

The Magnus effect, illustrated. Image via Wikipedia

Put Some Spin On It

If you’ve ever put spin on a ping pong ball, or pitched a curve ball, you’ve put the Magnus effect in motion. This observable phenomenon was first recorded by German physicist Heinrich Gustav Magnus in 1852.

Magnus noticed that that path of a spinning object is deflected by the pressure differences in the air around it that are caused by the spinning. This deflection in the path from the expected arc would not be present without the spin, and so this deviation from the norm is now known as the Magnus effect.

Challenergy’s turbines feature three cylinders that are driven to spin with a motor. The motor induces the Magnus effect on the wind around the cylinders, and rotates the turbine to generate energy.

A Norsepower cargo ship outfitted with rotor sails. Science

Vertical Integration

Like we said, vertical wind turbines themselves are nothing new. They’ve been used to power ships and airplanes for decades, and we’ve even covered a few DIY versions. For this application, though, the magic is in the high-speed winds of typhoons.

Besides being long-term usable in typhoon-infested regions, Challenergy’s turbine has several advantages. The cylinders can adjust to any wind direction, and there are flaps on the cylinders that can be adjusted to program the level of Magnus effect going on. They move ten times more slowly than traditional turbines, but as a result, they’re also less noisy and likely less of a threat to birds.

And technically, no, they’re not as efficient as regular three-bladers are because they require a ~10% energy investment to move the motor. When the typhoon hits, that’s when the payoff comes — the citizens can have emergency power immediately and don’t have to wait days or weeks.

Challenergy turbines are shorter than traditional turbines for now. Image via The Asahi Shimbun

Does Size Matter?

At 20m tall, Challenergy’s turbines are also much shorter than the 80-meter tall towers of traditional turbines in Japan. You can see the difference in the drone footage below.

Challenergy’s turbines generate a maximum 10 kilowatts compared to the maximum 3 megawatts put out by propeller turbines. But they don’t really need to be tall to harness typhoon winds or to be of great use to people. Even so, the company is planning to make a 50-meter tall version that will be capable of putting out 100 kilowatts.

A Challenergy turbine installed in Ishigaki, Okinawa, Japan has already had the chance to prove its mettle. Typhoon Mitag hit Japan in October 2019, and the turbine’s sensors recorded wind speeds close to 100 MPH (160 km/h), still safely below the  156 MPH (251 km/h) the company says they’re designed to withstand.

Challenergy founder and CEO Atsushi Shimizu was inspired by the 2011 tsunami that caused three meltdowns at the nuclear plant in Fukushima. Since then, the Japanese government has begun to turn away from nuclear power. Shimizu believes that the power generated from a single typhoon could power Japan for 50 years, though it’s unclear how many turbines that would take or how they would store the energy. Liquid air batteries, perhaps?

For now, the government of the Philippines have signed on to buy seven of Challenergy’s turbines in order to make micro-grids with solar and diesel generators. Time will tell, and we’re anxious to see how the country fares once they’re up and running.

25 thoughts on “Typhoon-Tough Turbines Withstand Wild Winds

  1. Always great to see advances in renewable energy projects. However, to actually reverse climate change inside a century we will need to utilize nuclear energy to remove CO2 from the air. SMRs are our best bet thus far.

  2. “believes that the power generated from a single typhoon could power Japan for 50 years,” Problem is (if you could), you’d be changing the climate taking that much energy out of the air…. Talk about climate change! No, nuclear is still the best bet all around — for those that believe in man-made climate change and those that don’t drink the cool-aid (me for one).

    1. As has been pointed out many, many times by people saying green energy doesn’t work, the kinetic energy captured by a wind turbine is a trivial amount, much like how tossing a stone in the ocean doesn’t cause sea levels to rise.

      That’d be like saying the waste heat from nuclear reactors will warm the planet.

      1. You’re 180 degrees off from understanding how to apply thermodynanic constraints to this context.

        The heat energy is all there already. It “has to go somewhere” if you use the wind turbines, or not. The storm isn’t being burned to create this energy, this is part of the energy that is already in the storm. You’re reducing the energy in the storm.

        Because of that, the entire amount of additional heat created by the act of generating this electricity is the inefficiency of the generator. If you generate 1kW of power, with a turbine that is 90% efficient, you generated ~100W of waste heat. But the electricity you used is still heat energy. On average, it is consumed and converted back to heat, not stored. So the atmosphere heat went up by ~100W.

        If you generate 1kW of power by burning something, the heat you generated is 1kW plus the inefficiency! And of course it goes into the atmosphere. Except this is all added heat. Atmospheric heat went up by something like 5 kW.

        In both cases you INCREASED the heat in the atmosphere, but in the case of wind power, you increased it very little. But you’re worried you might have decreased it, or … something?

  3. That’s what the nuclear lobby says, at least.

    My take? Far too expensive. My favourite sources?

    (1) economizing energa
    (2) (short term) wind
    (3) (mid term) photovoltaics
    (4) (long term) ??? perhaps nuclear again? perhaps something solar? perhaps fusion? who knows?

    1. I’m all for a diversified energy system, but my money’s on fusion in the long term.

      Within my lifetime, I’m hoping to see thorium reactors put back into use. Safer, more efficient, better in every way, entangled in political issues dating from the Cold War.

      There’s also plasma convertors, which consume trash and produce thermal energy, a synthetic organic gas that burns about as cleanly as natural gas, and a glassy slag that’s safe as a building material. IIRC Norway imports trash from Sweden to keep their running because they’re operating on a net deficit of trash.

      1. In regards to the “Norway imports trash from Sweden”, it is actually the other way around.

        Nor is it burning warm enough to be considered plasma. The facilities are simple incinerators with some exhaust cleaning, and the heat is both used for power generation and for district heating.

        Though, most of what leaves the chimney is water, carbon dioxide, and a bit of “unwanted” gases, its practically hard to perfectly clean the exhaust after all, but the vast majority is taken care of.

        In regards to diversified energy production.
        Sweden has a bit of solar, a fair bit of wind, and a ton of hydroelectric, and some nuclear.
        But also some biogas stations as well. Biogas is generated both from food waste processing (compost), and also from a few sewage works.

        Though, a while back I looked up the total amount of methane (the primary component of biogas) being released into the atmosphere annually from just sewage works world wide. The estimate is about 4% of the world’s total energy consumption worth of just methane that is just released straight into the air from just sewage works… (Not including land fills, compost sites, cows/sheep, and other methane sources.)

        This methane production comes from anaerobic digestion of various nutrients in the waste, and some sewage works uses either large mixers, or bubble through oxygen as to make this digestion aerobic, thereby have it produce less methane.

        While other sewage plants seals the ponds with an air tight roof, and collect the methane, filter/clean it, before compressing it into CNG for various needs, be it for busses/trucks, or power plants, or just home heating. And CNG can also be stored for decades without issues, so it is also a nice energy buffer for when solar/wind/water/etc doesn’t provide enough.

        If all larger sewage works in the world would start collecting methane, and aim at increasing methane production. (by simply not putting oxygen into the waste.) Then together with other energy storage solutions there might be little need for fusion power. Especially if more countries starts actually thinking of efficient heating and cooling, and house design.

        For an example, in Sweden, the “authority” in charge of the power grid has stated that “demand for power has not increased in the last X years, but it will radically rise within the next 5-10 years”, but they have been saying that for about 30+ years… Stuff just gets more and more efficient, so the net effect is no real change. Electric cars might change that though.

        But methane production is obviously just 1 source of energy, a diverse set of energy sources is generally a good idea.

        1. The best use of methane from landfills and sewage treatment is right there at the site. The gas is too low of pressure to be piped long distance. Compressing it to feed into natural gas pipelines requires making sure it doesn’t have unwanted contaminants. The most efficient use is feeding it directly to internal combustion engines connected to generators at the landfill or sewage plant. To squeeze even more electricity out, the exhaust gas can be run through a heat exchanger equipped with solid state TEGs.

          Oil refineries have a similar problem with low pressure waste gasses. Cost more than its worth to capture, clean, and compress for adding to fuel gas supplies so it just gets let out a pipe and burned in open air.

          What would likely be the most efficient use of such gas is a small turbine designed to run on a low pressure flammable gas. With a FADEC (Full Authority Digital Engine Control) made to continuously monitor the fuel amount and makeup to adjust the fuel/air mix it would provide a steady supply of electricity, which would most likely get used for internal plant systems rather than being sold.

          1. It actually isn’t all that costly to clean the methane, though, it is an extra step.
            Same thing goes for compressing and storing it.

            Now, burning it at the local site is one way to go at it. Since no real transportation costs would then be involved. But storing and using it for grid stabilization would be rather worth while if the grid were to move over to more wind and solar power.

            Now the reason a lot of oil and refineries doesn’t collect their own waste gases is an interesting subject. Some refineries do actually collect it, while others don’t. It depends on the local gas market. Since transporting gas long distances isn’t the most economically viable thing.

            Though, my local sewage works collects biogas, cleans it to fuel quality, and runs the city’s busses on it. And also use a fair bit to run a bio gas power plant, provide district heating, and also pipe it out on the city’s gas network for use in stoves and the like, not to mention export it as LNG. (Don’t know how many % of the city’s needs are covered by it, but considering the net export of biogas, then it seems to be an excess of it.)

            And in terms of economic sustainability.
            The company that runs it where I live also run a handful of biogas capture facilities in a couple of countries, and also show net profits during the last couple of years.

            It might not be the most “cost effective” way of doing it, but it works, and does provide a fair array of uses on the energy market in general.

          2. “Compressing it to feed into natural gas pipelines requires making sure it doesn’t have unwanted contaminants. ”

            As I have heard, on very cold winter days here in the Northern Plains of North America, the natural gas demand is so high that the gas powered turbines needed to keep the pipeline pressure nominal, actually consume 1/3 of the gas being shipped!

  4. How much CO2 do they hope to remove from the atmosphere? Plants barely have enough to grow and mature at 180 ppm. Plants will starve and die at 150 ppm. CO2 isn’t evenly distributed around the planet. 800 ppm is optimal, for maximum growth. Little scared, that the plan is to remove CO2.

    Being from Florida… When Hurricanes pass over, power-lines get knocked down often enough. Most outages, are pole mounted breakers though. Have to wait until after the storm passes, to turn the power back on…

    Not a huge fan of wind or solar, neither are constant, or consistent. Might get better, with a different sort of power grid, and some mass storage scheme. The wind doesn’t always blow, sun doesn’t always shine…

  5. There was a derecho across the Midwest in August that has wind speeds over 140mph that hit several windfarms with no major damage to the existing turbines, even though the winds did roughly 4 billion dollars worth of damage to crops. This seems like a less efficient solution to a nonexistent problem. Additionally, it is an order of magnitude smaller in power generation than existing turbines, so it lacks economy of scale.

  6. yes and no – these style of turbines can actually work in really high winds, the standard turbine design has the blades turned such that it won’t work to avoid damage in high winds – shutdown they are useless even if they survive. So this style that can cope with high winds and function at the same time is in some situations a major win (but this style tends to be really really rubbish in lower winds)

    The efficiency of these turbines has always been their downside, but they can be built bigger for bigger output, and infact are easier to scale up being a much more durable design – material science on the propeller blade is a limiting factor for how big traditional windfarms can get -needing to be stiff enough that it won’t hit the tower, strong enough it won’t snap in a strong gust etc.

    So for this style of use intended largely as a backup for after a disaster so there is some power its a good call, as it can be built to provide similar levels of peak power per installation in normal use, and should just keep on working after the apocalypse..

  7. I’ve seen so many kinds of alternative wind turbine designs being proposed as the panacea to whatever (mostly imaginary or irrelevant) problem, that I lost count. The vertical axis wind turbine is such an idea that’s like the perpetuum mobile: it never holds up to scrutiny.

    You can view typhoons as simply a cost calculation that probably ends up being irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, If the average wind turbine faces, say, a 1 in 100 chance of being destroyed in a typhoon, then making a typhoon-resistant turbine may add at most 1% to the cost. Probably less, since it is likely that only the blades need replacement after a disaster.

    Nuclear? Fancy technology, but no, it’s not gonna save us. Too expensive, too slow. Olkiluoto III is more than a decade over time and 3x over budget. Hinkley C is a subsidy circus, designed to prop up the nuclear industry. SMR’s: like nuclear fusion: always ‘just around the corner’.

    So for the foreseeable future the heavy lifting of averting catastrophic climate change will boringly use the current technologies: Si PV + HAWT.

    1. Nuclear fission plants go over time and over budget due to interference from people who are clueless, ignorant, and fearful about the technology and adamantly refuse to learn and understand the facts.

  8. “It’s really beginning to feel as though the problem of climate change is a huge boulder rolling down a steep hill, and we have the Sisyphean task of trying to reverse it.”

    Doesn’t HaD have a policy against making political posts?

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