But unlike rural landscapes that stretch for miles without being punctuated by tall buildings, harvesting wind for renewable energy in urban environments is mostly unfeasible. The reason is simple: conventional wind turbines are designed to harvest wind blowing from a single direction. In cities, wind trapped between man-made canyons — pushed to-and-fro, up and down, between structures of varying heights — tends to be chaotic. It travels in multiple directions, rendering wind turbines ineffective and inefficient.
But as Nicolas Orellana and Yaseen Noorani could tell you, this isn't to say that urban areas are without any sort of potential for harvesting wind power. The duo, both master of science students at Lancaster University in England, have been making headlines of late for a wind turbine concept designed to take advantage of the all-over-the-place wind patterns found in cities. In fact, the turbine's petite size could make it a must-have for high-rise apartment dwellers across the globe — just secure this single-axis power generator to a balcony railing and watch it spin a blustery breeze into renewable energy.
A solution-oriented student design in very good company
Dubbed O-Wind Turbine in reference to its omnidirectional wind-harvesting capabilities, the first-of-its kind design was recently selected as a national winner for the James Design Award, an international student design competition that showcases problem-solving designs of all stripes.
Representing the United Kingdom, the O-Wind Turbine will now compete for the grand prize against an impressive roster of other national winners including a water pipe leak-detecting robot (the United States), a smart pacifier that monitors the humidity of a baby's lips (Japan), a Bluetooth tape measure for the visually impaired (Australia) and a snazzy piece of multifunctional furniture that transforms into a lifeboat during flooding events (Hong Kong.)
As Orellana and Noorani explain in their design brief, the inspiration for their competing design comes from a somewhat unlikely source: NASA.
Years ago, the NASA was exploring the option of wind-driven balls to explore Mars [the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Tumbleweed Rover], but wind's multi-directionality was a big challenge. Our concept was originally developed as a way of taking advantage of cross-winds to make an exploratory vehicle travelling in a pre-set direction. A prototype proven in the Atacama Desert showed that it works, travelling more than 7km in straight line. The concept was recently redeveloped as a wind turbine by taking advantage of its capacity of making use of omnidirectional winds to achieve rotation over a single axis. This capacity allows it to face changing winds in urban environments.
Orellana and Noorani's resulting prototype is a spherical contraption with vented openings that measures just under 10 inches in diameter. It rotates on a fixed axis somewhat similar to a desktop globe. As it rotates, driven by both vertical and horizontal wind, the energy generated by the spinning motion is fed into a small generator where the energy is converted into electricity. From there, the electricity can be used directly to help power the apartment — or office — where the turbine is installed. Alternately, the energy could be fed back into the main electric grid.
It's unclear how much electricity a single O-Wind Turbine could potentially produce. Based on the prototype's size, it's safe to assume not a ton. But a handful of these geometric gizmos affixed to a balcony — the higher up the better to take advantage of stronger wind speeds — could perhaps be enough to power a few small appliances, maybe even an entire apartment.
In addition to self-sufficiency minded urban settings, the designers also imagine their creation being employed in off-grid scenarios — rural getaways, motor homes, boats and the like.
"We hope that O-Wind Turbine will improve the usability and affordability of turbines for people across the world," Orellana recently explained in a press statement. "Cities are windy places but we are currently not harnessing this resource. Our belief is that making it easier to generate green energy, people will be encouraged to play a bigger own role in conserving our planet."
He adds: "Winning the James Dyson award has validated our concept and given us the confidence to approach investors to secure the capital we need to continue to turn our idea into a reality."
If the O-Wind Turbine is indeed turned into a reality, its designers believe it could take up to five years to tweak and improve the prototype while readying it for commercial production.
Says Kenneth Grange, the legendary British industrial designer heading the competition's judging panel:
I was captivated by the simplicity of the design, relative to the enormous ambition of competing in the renewable energy sector. Developing ways to embed sustainability into society is an important challenge which will puzzle engineers for centuries, and these innovators show promise as early pioneers. Whilst the project is still at the beginning of a long and gruelling journey of iterations and frustrations, the James Dyson Award exists to reward young engineers with vision.
Encouraging words from a guy who has designed everything from electric kettles to parking meters to Kodak's iconic Instamatic camera.
O-Wind Turbine and the other national winners and runners-up will now advance to the next round of the competition where the finalists will be narrowed down to a shortlist of 20. In the final round, Sir James Dyson himself — the visionary inventor whose expensive, exhaustively engineered vacuum cleaners and blade-less fans can be found on wedding gift registries the world over — will select the grand prize recipient. The winning student designer(s) will be announced on Nov. 15 and receive a prize is $40,000. An additional $6,000 will be awarded to the winner's university.
Open to current and recently graduated engineering students, the annual James Dyson Award is hosted by the James Dyson Foundation, the charitable arm of Dyson's eponymous technology company. Again, the competition brief is straightforward: competing students are challenged to design something that solves a problem. That's it. The competition judges are particularly on the lookout for solution-oriented designs that are "clever yet simple," sustainable and commercially viable.
Inset image: The James Dyson Foundation