Impossible But Done

August 4, 2010 | 3 Comments

This writer thinks with others that the “laws” of science and other notions have useful purposes when they work to our advantage.  But the laws need challenged now and one must suppose forever.  So when the impossible, flaunts the law, or whatever gets crashed, there’s cause for some celebration – not for the breaking, but for the new frontier.

Back at the July fourth weekend, but Rick Cavallaro and the crew at proved a wind-powered vehicle traveled downwind faster than the wind speed.  Naysayers said it couldn’t be done, but the anarchist in this writer can’t help but spread the word.  It’s official – impossible but done.  The North American Land Sailing Association made it official July 27th, 2010 when it ratified the results.  And at better than 2.8 to 1 as well.

The achievement means physics texts, record books, and a pile of assumptions all have to be rewritten and reevaluated.  A new frontier, indeed.

Richard Jenkins wrote in part, “My heart is split between belittling idiots, and saluting eccentrics, and this downwind quest lay somewhere in the middle. These loonies were pursuing a pointless goal, doomed to failure, but there was some genuine merit in the myth and their enthusiasm . . . Traveling through zero apparent wind, with no stored power? Impossible. Why would you even attempt it?

A few months later I actually met the idiots in question and, to my surprise and concern we not only have a few mutual friends, but they seemed to be rather technically credible. But, everyone makes mistakes, and I let them off as decent people with a blinkered view of fundamentally flawed engineering . . .  A few months later they were claiming success!

There was, however, a growing momentum of technical people (who should have known better), saying that these idiots have actually proven that it is possible to travel faster than the wind going directly down wind.”

Jenkins shot the video:

The backing for the record attempts isn’t full of dopes either. The list includes JobyEnergy, Google, MetOne Instruments, and SportVision.  Some eccentric press picked it up including Wired Magazine, Popular Science, Discover, Sail Magazine, Discovery Channel, and Thin Air Designs.  Let the skeptics rest.

Cavallaro and his crew designed an innovative ultra-lightweight, aerodynamically sound cart with a 17-foot propeller that’s driven by the vehicle’s wheels. The wheels turn the prop, while the prop turns the wheels – possible thanks to an incredibly heavy-duty transmission – with the wind acting as an external power source that propels the cart faster than the wind itself.

The team set out to prove such a feat was possible and now that they’ve set a record they’ve fixed their sights on breaking it. Cavallaro hopes to reach three times the speed of the wind within a few weeks.

The counterintuitive idea that you can travel downwind faster than the wind is casus belli for aerodynamic arguments from Internet forums to college classrooms. The concept DWFTTW (Down Wind Faster Than The Wind) can cause world-renowned physicists to throw their Nobel Prizes in fits of rage.

Cavallaro explains, “If you’re on a bike and you’re going downwind, you don’t feel any wind anymore at all. You lose the power of the wind when you reach the wind speed, because there is no relative wind at that point.”   Working with a hang-gliding buddy, Cavallaro did the math and built a model to prove DWFTTW is possible.  The equations didn’t persuade anyone, “I thought people would say, ‘That’s cool,’ but they didn’t. They said, ‘Wow, you’re an idiot.’ So we decided to build a full-size one. That’s when we approached a couple of sponsors.”

Cavallaro lined up help from Google and JobyEnergy and set to work with the San Jose State University aero department on an ultralight, four-wheeled vehicle with a 17-foot-tall propeller. The vehicle is made mostly of foam and parallels the aerodynamics of a Formula 1 racecar.  The propeller is key to how it is possible to travel downwind faster than the wind. It’s also the source of the biggest misunderstandings about how the vehicle works.

Cavallaro goes on, “Skeptics think that the wind is turning the prop, and the car is turning the wheels, and that’s what makes the car go. That’s not the case. The wheels are turning the prop. What happens is the prop thrust pushes the vehicle.”

“It sounds like a perpetual motion machine – the wheels turn the prop, which turns the vehicle’s wheels, which turn the prop, which turns the vehicle’s wheels – but you’ve got the wind as an external power source,” Cavallaro said.

Building a transmission capable of transferring power from the wheels to the prop was almost as hard as convincing skeptics that the vehicle would work. It took longer than a year and a lot of trial and error to make it work. “You’ve got to come up with a transmission that can handle those loads, even though it’s not at a high horsepower,” Cavallaro said. “You break some things, and then you build bigger.”

Sometimes it’s the laws that break.  The anarchist in this writer is pleased; other laws can fall, too.  Many things, from BlackLight and cold fusion in physics on to chemistry and biology there’s a wealth of laws that need sent back to being ideas with new frontiers in their place.


3 Comments so far

  1. Phone 4 Energy ~ New Energy Niche ~ Conversion Of 1:10 To 1:15. | Goodmh on August 4, 2010 8:34 AM

    […] Impossible But Done | New Energy and Fuel […]

  2. russ on August 4, 2010 9:20 PM

    Actually nothing new as I understand it – these guys just got press.

  3. Gary on August 9, 2010 12:45 PM

    Ha – as every sailor knows, one can sail cross-wind faster than the wind. Their prop is just sailing cross-wind, once the wheels start it spinning. Then the prop can extract energy from the wind. Clever.

    and already on the wiki:

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