Emerging Technology from the arXiv

A View from Emerging Technology from the arXiv

Why Fish Hold the Key to Increasing Wind Farm Power

The way schooling fish swim reveals how to squeeze more power from the wind over a given area of land.

  • February 15, 2010
What do wind farms and fish schools have in common? Not enough, according to an analysis by Bob Whittlesey and buddies at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. And here’s why.
Most wind farms use horizontal axis turbines because they generate significantly more power from the air flowing through them than vertical axis turbines. That’s why you seen plenty of wind farms using horizontal axis turbines and very few using vertical axes.
But there’s a problem with horizontal axis turbines. The maximum power a rotor can extract is proportional to the cube

of the windspeed. But sinc, they slow the air passing through them, neighbouring turbines need to be around ten turbine diameters apart. And that places a significant limit on the power that can be generated from a given area of land.
The anecdotal evidence is that vertical axis turbines do better–by some accounts closely packing these turbines can actually increase their power output. Today Whittlesey and co explain why.
The secret appears to be a well known aerodynamic effect called a Karman vortex street, a term you may not know but will surely be familiar with from the example below, wich shows the cloud patterns downwind of the Juan Fernandez Islands off the coast of Chile.
These repeating patterns of vortices in an air stream around a body are relatively common. In fact, fluid dynamicists have well developed models for simulating the way their interaction helps keep schools of fish synchronised and reduces the total propulsive power needed per fish. A similar effect reduces the fuel consumption of vehicles travelling in a platoon.
So for the Caltech kids, it was but a small matter to redesign such a model to simulate the vortices in a 16 x 16 farm of vertical axis wind turbines and to study the effect of close packing the turbines.
It turns out that the additional acceleration that the vortices add to the wind can increase the power of vertical axis turbines. And although they still do not have the power efficiency of horizontal axis turbines, this means they can be packed much more closely together.
That’s important because it increases the power that can be genetated from a given area of land and not by a small amount. “These configurations significantly reduced the land use for vertical axis wind turbine wind farms, resulting in array power density increases of over one order of magnitude compared to operational horizontal axis wind turbine wind farms,” say the Caltech boys.
Yep, an order of magnitude increase in power density.
Of course, the model is only two dimensional and does not account for complex flow behaviour such as vortex shedding. But is it worth looking into in more detail? You betcha. Caltech has already filed patents.
Not bad for an idea inspired by fish.
Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1002.2250: Fish schooling as a basis for vertical axis wind turbine farm design

Become an MIT Technology Review Insider for in-depth analysis and unparalleled perspective.

Subscribe today

Uh oh–you've read all of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium
$179.95/yr US PRICE

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Plus.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus ad-free web experience, select discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

You've read all of your free articles this month. This is your last free article this month. You've read of free articles this month. or  for unlimited online access.