Patent number US 2004/0112055 A1 is entitled “Atmospheric Vortex Engine.” The name sounds interesting. The concept is mind blowing; to harness the energy producing potential of a tornado. It involves creating a vortex of air and holding it in a fixed position. Simply put, the tornado would be created to harness the energy that is produced when “heat is carried upward by convection in the atmosphere.” The tornado acts as a virtual chimney for the rising air. Louis Michaud goes on to state that, “The unit cost of electrical energy produced with an AVE could be half the cost of the next most economical alternative.” The concept has been around for a while, in fact, Louis Michaud registered his patent on June 17, 2004.
The “most economical alternative,” to which Michaud refers, is a similar concept, the Solar Updraft Tower. The Solar Updraft Tower uses a tall, physical tower and a large circular solar heat collector to heat the air surrounding the tower. Michaud’s system saves a great deal of money by eliminating the physical tower and replacing it with a virtual one. The tornado becomes the chimney structure. Hot water piped from nearby fossil fuel or nuclear power plants would “fuel” the Atmospheric Vortex Engine, creating the heat necessary to facilitate the updraft.
It is estimated that it would be possible to establish a self-sustaining vortex to demonstrate the feasibility of the process with a station 30 m in diameter under ideal conditions. Learning to control large vortices under less than ideal conditions would be a major engineering challenge. Developing the process will require determination, engineering resources; and cooperation between engineers and atmospheric scientists. There will be difficulties to overcome, but they should be no greater than in other large technical enterprises.
The difficulties that Michaud mentions are both human and engineering problems. People are justifiably nervous at the thought of living next door to a large, albeit tethered, tornado. With a vortex reaching perhaps twenty kilometers into the atmosphere, it would be a rather awe inspiring sight. Michaud contends, however, that the vortex could be shut down relatively easily by restricting the flow of hot water to the base of station.
After a year-long absence from the headlines, Michaud’s idea is starting to make media headway again. The Atmospheric Vortex Engine first appeared in The Observer in February of this year, and a week ago in The Toronto Star. Momentum may in fact be gathering for it once again. Ontario Centres of Excellence has already provided some funding which is has been used to build a second 1 meter scale model and create a computer simulation for the effects of crosswinds on a twenty meter model.
The next step is to build and study the performance of a four-metre model, requiring a further injection of OCE funds of about $300,000. The plan would be to scale up from there, moving on to 10-metre, 20-metre, and 50-metre pilot plants, likely requiring millions of dollars in both public and private funding.
A commercial plant would be quite large, Michaud estimates the size at between 200 and 400 meters in diameter. The cost of production would be somewhere in the vicinity of $60 million. It is not cheap, but neither is it a monstrous budget for civil engineering project. Michaud certainly has the work experience to have an idea of the costs involved; he worked as a senior process control engineer with Imperial Oil for over twenty-four years.
Could it work? Yes, it could. There are no physics principles being contravened. It will require the collaboration of scientists from different fields, public and private funding and a great deal of time to make a system like this a reality, but the potential is there. Given enough funding, we may start seeing some larger scale models in the not too distant future.
Wentworth, New South Wales (Government Website)