Earlier this week I came across a rather interesting new technology from Humdinger Wind Energy, LLC. Based in Honolulu, this company claims that “from enabling smart buildings to reducing the cost of wind energy”, they are “researching & developing the world’s first non-turbine harvesting technology, the Windbelt™ generator”. Wind power without a wind turbine? Definitely worth a second look.
According to the Humdinger Web site, “[i]nstead of using conventional geared, roating airfoils to pull energy from the wind, the Windbelt™ relies on an aerodynamic phenomenon known as on an aerodynamic phenomenon known as aeroelastic flutter (‘flutter’). While the phenomenon is a well-known destructive force (e.g., a cause of bridge failure), researchers at Humdinger have discovered that it can also be a useful and powerful mechanism for catching the wind at scales and costs beyond the reach of turbines”.
Huh! “Sounds pretty bizarre”, I thought to myself, but with a niggling feeling that I actually knew what they were talking about, without understanding why… until I read the very next paragraph on the Web page, where the source of that feeling was resolved. “To picture how this works”, says Humdinger, “think of how you held a blade of grass between your fingers as a kid and made it whistle [Aha!], — or how the strapping on a truck can be seen moving in the wind. That is roughly how the Windbelt can pull energy from the wind – then, it’s a second step to turn that energy of the moving membrane into electricity, which is done by actuating new types of linear generators.”
The fluttering of the membrane moves a coil back and forth over a permanent magnet, or vice-versa. The changing field leads to the generation of electricity in the coil, and thus a generator is born.
Humdinger claims that by grouping these fluttering mebranes into modules, cells and panels, they can be used to generate anything from sub-1W to multiple MW of power. An array of 10 x 1 m x 1m x 5 cm panels could produce 1 kW of power. On larger installations, Humdinger claims that the “Windcell Panels have an initial projected production cost of $1 per rated watt, “or US$0.03-US$0.05 per kWh (at 6m/s average windspeeds) […] – four times cheaper than comparable solar systems and far less expensive than similarly-sized turbine-based wind systems”.
A quick search of the US Patent and Trademark Office shows that a patent on the above technology was issued to Humdinger only last month. Images from the patent show a variety of suggested coil – magnet configurations, a couple of which are shown below:
According to a BusinessWeek article on this technology from late last year, the device’s inventor, Shawn Frayne, came up with the idea while trying to help fishermen in rural Haiti generate cheap, robust electricity. “Unconnected to the local power grid,” said the article, “they relied heavily on dirty kerosene lamps, which are not only costly to operate but also unhealthy and dangerous. [Shawn] decided to devise an alternative—a small, safe, and renewable power generator that could be used to power LED lights and small household electronics, such as radios.”
Mr. Frayne has subsequently worked with communities in rural Guatemala to develop production-ready versions of the Windbelt. As the concept enters the mainstream of wind generation technology, it will be interesting to see what impact it has on the behemoth that is the wind turbine industry. At the cheaper rates of electricity generation claimed by Humdinger, and in easy-to-use form factors, one has to think that the technology just might stand a chance of succeeding.
Good luck to them!