August 7, 2007
WindWing offers new approach for Wind Energy

A Santa Barbara company may have a simple solution for wind energy -- all from taking a look at a different part of the plane.

While most wind turbines these days are built as propellers, Gene Kelley is convinced that wings are a better answer for capturing wind energy. Though the physics and work that has gone into his invention can get complex, the underlying concept of his "WindWing" is basic enough for a child to understand.

Anyone who has stuck a hand out of a car window has felt how the WindWing works. As the hand is tilted upward, the wind pushes the hand up. As it tilts downward, the wind pushes it down.

The resulting up-and-down motion, or oscillation, is what gives the WindWing its power.

Kelley, a flight buff with decades of aviation experience added to his work as a "human factors engineer," said the use of a wing as opposed to a propeller creates a simpler and more efficient way to capture the energy of the wind.

The wing concept could be applied to water as well. Kelley said it could apply to any flowing, fluid medium. For now, the company is focusing on the WindWing to prove the concept.

He filed a patent application in 2005 and is awaiting its approval.

"We want to build a better way of harvesting energy from whatever renewable source there is," Kelley said.

Kelley, who started a company called InnovaTech LLC for his research about 14 months ago, has a diverse background when it comes to invention. In his 40 years of experience, he's worked on projects from coal mines to aircraft carriers. He was on the research team that developed the "rumble strips" that let drivers know when they're veering off the road.

Kelley started W2 Energy Development Corp. about five months ago to develop the concept of the WindWing.

His original thought was to create inexpensive, portable power for emergencies around the world, such as tsunamis and earthquakes. He had planned to create a foundation to build and give away the technology.

But it turned out the best way to develop the technology was through a corporation, complete with opportunities for investment that would bring in money to drive the development. Kelley still hopes to build a foundation to achieve his original philanthropic goal.

The first step after starting W2 was to build a prototype that would prove that the basic concept was valid. Months of work and scavenged parts went into building the prototype that now sits in a small room in the back of a hangar at the Santa Barbara Airport.

Kelley and David Buckalew, W2 vice president for information resources, built the prototype with a lot of trial and error. The wings were constructed of sheets of metal in Kelley's backyard and parts of the device come from the mechanism used to control a car window, plus the kinds of weights you would find at your local gym. Other parts were custom made by a machine shop.

The prototype consists of four wings on one end and weights on the other. The weighted end of the bar is short -- one foot long compared to the 10 feet on the other end where the wings sit. Kelley compares the balancing of the bar on its central support pole to balancing weight on a teeter-totter.

Increasing lift

Because the lever is built at a 10-1 ratio, the force of the wind is magnified, so that 200 pounds of lift on the wings translates into one ton of useful force. In practical application, the ratio will be determined by factors such as wind conditions and wing length.

When a fan is turned on in the prototype room, the 6.7 mph breeze starts to push the wing end upward. When the wings reach the top, a position sensor is tripped and the orientation of the wings tilts downward, changing their "angle of attack." The wings are then pushed downward until they reach the bottom and the wing angle changes again.

The system moves gently, with springs on the central pole that compress as the bar reaches the top and bottom of its movement and springs back to give the bar a shove in the opposite direction. That means energy isn't lost in turning the lever.

The up-and-down flapping hints at one of the system's benefits over its propeller-equipped kin -- that it is less likely to kill birds.

In the actual working model, a rod and pump or generator would be attached to the weighted end. As it moves up and down with the wind, it could be used to compress air, pump water or generate electricity.

"It's going to be a very, very successful technology," said Ron Pretlac, chief operating officer. "Because of the applications, it creates a whole variety of new solutions."

Wind energy currently provides less than 1 percent of the electricity used in the United States, according to the American Wind Energy Association. The association supports President Bush's assertion that up to 20 percent of the nation's electricity could come from wind.

Reducing carbon dioxide emissions

If 10 percent of wind power potential from the nation's 10 windiest states was captured, it could reduce U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by almost one-third, the association reports.

Wind energy is a hot place to be these days, said Christine Real de Azua, assistant director of communications for the American Wind Energy Association.

"There's a lot of opportunity and wind energy attracts a lot of new concepts," she said. "It's all very exciting."

She said demand has grown at such a rate that wind turbines are sold out through this year and into next. Companies are investing in more manufacturing facilities to meet that demand.

Those at W2 are convinced their approach could convince more people of the merits of wind power. Most important is the matter of efficiency.

Real de Azua said the industry "manufactures and produces wind turbines that are proven and reliable and efficient in the market."

A wind turbine today will convert up to 45 percent of the energy from the wind it encounters into electricity, said John Dunlop, technical services senior engineer for the American Wind Energy Association.

Propeller turbines have increased in productivity as blades were improved, maintenance was scheduled for when the wind was slow and people were able to operate turbines for longer periods of time, he said.

Kelley doesn't disagree that the propeller turbines can capture energy from they wind they come in contact with, but he's concerned about all the wind those three blades are missing.

That's because the three blades have a small surface area that makes contact with the wind at any point in time. He said it ends up equating to capturing only 5 percent of the wind energy in a column of air. The wind also tends to hit different parts of the blades at different speeds, so the propeller is constantly having to make adjustments, which takes energy.

With the WindWing, the wings put more surface area in contact with the wind. This provides more lift, which translates into more power. The WindWing is about 40 to 60 percent efficient at getting power from the wind, W2 reports.

Several WindWings could be stacked on a single tower, so that those at different levels could each be adjusted to get the most out of the different wind speeds. The angle of the wings can be adjusted so that there is a high angle for a light wind and a low angle for a strong wind.

The company is researching how many WindWings can be stacked on the same pole. The design is also scalable, so that the wings could range from the size of a conference room table to that of a Boeing 747 "jumbo jet."

Those at W2 said it would take far fewer towers to get the same amount of power generated by propeller turbines. A single WindWing could replace eight to 12 propellers, Kelley said.

There's also the lower cost.

Because of its simple design, the WindWing would be less expensive to make.

A cheaper option

A utility-scale propeller turbine, with blades that can reach more than 40 meters in length and generate 1.8 megawatts of power, can run more than $1.5 million. Smaller, residential- or farm-sized turbines run from a few thousand to up to $80,000, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

Though it is still in the early stages of development, Kelley said the WindWing could cost as little as one-tenth of what it costs for a propeller turbine. Of course, the location of the installation and other factors could affect the cost.

Then there are the little pluses, such as the ability to mount solar cells on the wings, letting them do double-duty in power generation.

It all comes down to a system that makes more sense for users and the environment, Kelley said.

The idea has generated international interest. Though those with the company did not want to talk specifics, they said they were pursuing possibilities for both the WindWing and its close companion, the WaterWing, which could be used to pump water out of aqueducts or generate power from pipelines.
Simple gym weights are employed as ballast for the WindWing prototypes in Santa Barbara.

Photo by Karen Quincy Loberg

Simple gym weights are employed as ballast for the WindWing prototypes in Santa Barbara.

Kelley said W2 is trying to raise from $5 million to $7 million in its first round of financing as it moves from the proof-of-concept prototype to a new WindWing prototype that is larger and more functional with more controls.

The company also is looking for land to lease where it can construct a cluster of three different sizes. That could be accomplished in the next six months. Once constructed, the site could act as a live demonstration of the technology. That could help W2 move into the market.

The company is looking at all the different entry points to the market, including the farmer who needs to water crops, the household user and the industrial complex in need of power. W2 also wants to build political support.

But when the people behind W2 stand around the prototype as it waves up and down in the hangar, the discussion isn't about money or political will.

"Can you imagine taking this to Africa and using this to drill for water?" Buckalew asks.

Pretlac notes it could be used to drill for water, pump and purify the water and then distribute it.

"That's a dream of ours, and you can see it works," he said.