A couple weeks ago the Thiel Foundation announced three new grants awarded through its Breakout Labs, to promote innovation in science and technology. The most recent award takes the program into clean energy, with a bold new proposal to harness the power of atmospheric vortexes.

An atmospheric vortex engine (AVE) uses a controlled vortex to capture mechanical energy produced when heat is carried upward by convection in the atmosphere.  Vortexes occur naturally, seen often in the plains and deserts as dust devils, at sea or large lakes as waterspouts and most alarmingly as tornadoes and hurricanes.  The vortex rotation is essentially the same as the whirling of air due to the rotation of the earth that can be easily seen (although not a Coriolis force) while the water drains from a tub.

An AVE is a combination of convection, the rising of heated air and an induced whirl or vortex.  The effect is a stream of air rising like a chimney – but no chimney is needed as the vortex keeps the heated air spinning, gathered and rising.  It’s a neat thing to see.

Atmospheric Vortex Engine Power Cycle. Click image for the largest view.

Atmospheric Vortex Engine Power Cycle. Click image for the largest view.

Canadian engineer Louis Michaud brainstormed out the idea to harness the power in a vortex and started the company AVEtec.  Michaud’s AVE harnesses the physics of air vortexes to produce extremely cheap and clean energy.  In his design, warm or humid air is introduced into a circular station, where it’s formed into a rising vortex. The temperature difference between the heated air and the atmosphere above it supports the vortex and drives multiple turbines located at the base. The vortex can be shut down at any time simply by closing off the source of warm air.

AVEtec projects that the cost of the energy it generates could be as low as 3 cents per kilowatt-hour, making it one of the least expensive forms of energy production. An AVE power station could have a diameter of 100 meters and generate 200 megawatts of electrical power, about the same size as a small conventional natural gas power station.

There is a lot of momentum in likening the vortex to the tornado, except that the tornado is vastly different.  But the power available from the moving air is quite substantial – as Michaud said, “The power in a tornado is undisputed. My work has established the principles by which we can control and exploit that power to provide clean energy on an unprecedented scale. With the funding from Breakout Labs, we are building a prototype in partnership with Lambton College to demonstrate the feasibility and the safety of the atmospheric vortex engine.”

Atmospheric Vortex Engine Base Block Diagram. Click image for the largest view.

Atmospheric Vortex Engine Base Block Diagram. Click image for the largest view.

The shock in all of this is an assertion that area about 400 feet in diameter could match the power output of 200 1-megawatt wind turbines.

Or just use the heat from the existing power plants.  “The real prize will be using a large scale AVE to drive turbines”, says Michaud. “Using the low temperature waste heat from a 500MW thermal power plant could generate an additional 200MW of power, increasing capacity by 40% and producing perfectly green electricity at less than three cents per kilowatt hour.”

For the readers coming up to speed on the physics and everyone else the simplest way to describe how the AVE is powered is to compare the heat value available at the ground with what is the sink value.  From a ground-to-ground ambient temperature situation the heat energy that can be given up is practically – none.  But when a vortex from the warm ground temperature is used to the cold higher atmosphere the heat energy that can be given up is very large.

The conversion of the heat energy to electricity is simply catching the breeze at the bottom of the vortex with a fan connected to a generator.

The consequences are nominal.  The heat that is used and lost would be radiated to space either directly or from the work done by the harvested energy.  It’s the same amount of heat, the time of release is moved a bit and the location of the release is moved perhaps quite some distance via electrical energy distribution.  But the energy cycled is still the same.

Michaud deserves congratulations.  The basic idea is very intuitive, connects some diverse physic properties and exploits the natural heating cycle of the planet without harm.  The AVE is far more practical than a forest of wind turbines carpeting the landscape and offers a far larger portion of the people on earth a means to harvest an incredibly large pool of readily available energy.

The best link is to the FAQ offered at AVEtec.  Over a few pages the whole of the principles will become clear and it’s not written in deep technical prose.  Most everyone will grasp the AVE easily – and that would be a very good thing indeed.


4 Comments so far

  1. JeffC on December 27, 2012 6:55 AM

    “The conversion of the heat energy to electricity is simply catching the breeze at the bottom of the vortex with a fan connected to a generator.”

    the breeze that will be significant but in a small area … (the size of the turbine …)
    and only if alot of heat is used to create the vortex …

    if the heat doesn’t come from a power plant as waste heat then the energy to create the heat needs to be subtracted from the power generated and my bet is that you end up with a net negative in that case …

    the power of the tornado does not come from the vortex but from the huge wind forces generated by a storm …

    a vortex is the symptom of power not the cause of it …

  2. jp straley on December 27, 2012 2:52 PM

    Also has potential for a downwind rain shadow.

  3. S.M. Stirling on January 1, 2013 2:48 AM

    JeffC: The function of the AVE vortex is to create a shielded tube between the surface and the high-altitude cold zone, which in turn sucks more warm surface level air in.

    The energy for the whole process comes from the heat gradient between the surface and the troposphere.

    The troposphere is consistently very cold, so that’s taken care of.

    It doesn’t matter where the heat at the bottom comes from, as long as there’s enough of it.

    Waste heat from power stations (or other industrial sources) would certainly do it, even in areas that are otherwise quite cold.

    But from the looks of it, the ambient heat naturally available in a fairly hot region — the equatorial oceans, for example, or tropical deserts — would be more than sufficient as well.

    The waste heat from a power plant isn’t very hot, after all.

    The AVE is just another form of solar-powered heat engine, and potentially a very useful one. The energy available is extremely large, if initially rather diffuse. This is a way of concentrating it.

    The concept is ingenious but requires no unobtanium in the way of materials or radically new engineering. All the parts are well-understood technology available off the shelf or nearly, just put together differently.

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