Caltech studies fish schools to improve wind farms

Caltech sties fish schools to improve wind farms Researchers at the California Institute of Technology are testing new wind farm configurations based on observations of schools of fish.  By using vertical wind turbines and placing them better in relation to each other, wind farms may be able to produce 10 times the amount of energy per acre than is currently generated.

Fluid-dynamics expert John Dabiri, head of of Caltech’s Biological Propulsion Laboratory, and his graduate students Robert Whittlesey and Sebastian Liska are looking into two aspects of wind farms to improve their efficiency.  First, the team looked at how to get more turbines onto the small plots of land.  Second, they are studying the best placement of the turbines in relation to each other to generate the most energy.

Graduate students Whittlesey and Liska researched using vertical axis wind turbines rather than horizontal axis wind turbines.  Horizontal axis wind turbines are the propeller type wind turbines usually arranged in rows on most current wind farms.  Vertical wind turbines use vertical blades and don’t take up nearly the space that horizontal wind turbines due.  So you can place more vertical turbines than horizontal turbines on a small plot of land.  This means that less land is needed for wind farms.

The next thing the researchers are examining is the most efficient configuration of turbines to generate the most energy.  This is where studying schools of fish comes in.

In current wind farms, all of the turbines rotate in the same direction. But while studying the vortices left behind by fish swimming in a school, Dabiri noticed that some vortices rotated clockwise, while others rotated counter-clockwise. Dabiri therefore wants to examine whether alternating the rotation of vertical-axis turbines in close proximity will help improve efficiency. The second observation he made studying fish-and seen in Whittlesey and Liska’s simulation-was that the vortices formed a "staircase" pattern, which contrasts with current wind farms that place turbines neatly in rows.

“Dabiri has purchased two acres of land north of Los Angeles establishing the Caltech Field Laboratory for Optimized Wind Energy (FLOWE).”  This site will be used to test vertical axis wind turbines and various configurations in real world conditions rather than simply using computer models. 

Caltech vertical wind turbine In order to do this, they will be using six vertical wind turbines on movable platforms so that they can research different turbine configurations.  Three of the wind turbines to be used are being provided by Windspire Energy.  In return, the company will get a copy of the research results.  The other three turbines have been bought from another manufacturer.  All six turbines should produce about 15 KW of electricity that can power several homes.

Dabiri thinks that the FLOWE research may lead to wind turbine configurations that will yield 10 times the amount of energy generated by wind farms today.

Further research is expected to include power-generation experiments that will look at using the generated power locally or through the grid.

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