A new spin on clean energy: tornado power

I have a feature in today’s Toronto Star about a retired engineer from Sarnia, Ontario, who has spent the past four decades of his life studying the possibility of creating man-made tornadoes from industrial waste heat so that their energy can be harnessed for clean electricity generation. More recently, Louis Michaud has formed a company called AVEtec Energy, filed and obtained patents, and has partnered up with the University of Western Ontario’s wind-tunnel lab to study small prototypes and do computer simulations of his “vortex engine” process. He’s also managed to raise some early research funding from the Ontario Centres of Excellence and now faces his biggest challenge yet: convincing private investors to fund a large-scale working pilot plant.

It may sound like a whacky, out-there idea, but the experts I spoke with for the feature don’t doubt the technical possibility of creating a man-made tornado. After all, the principles of convection are pretty straightforward. Heat rises when you’ve got a certain temperature differential, and as it rises it swirls — kind of the reverse of what you see when water goes down a drain. AVEtec’s pitch might raise eyebrows, but many are taking it seriously. For example, its advisory board consists of climate experts from Oxford, Cambridge and MIT, including MIT professor and well-respected hurricane expert Kerry Emanuel.

Michaud envisions building a large cylindrical building 200 metres in diameter and about 50 meters high, and this structure would have an open top. Heated waste water from a power plant that would normally go to a cooling tower would instead be diverted to the vortex building and into 10 or more strategically located cooling cells, where fans would blow so the air could pick up the heat energy from the water. The hot air from the 10+ intake ducts are then pushed at an angle into the cylindrical building, where you see the beginnings of a whirlwind. As the hot air rises it gathers energy and creates a vortex that reaches higher and higher into the atmosphere. At a certain point the fans pushing the hot air into the vortex are turned off. The vortex, now hungry for more heated air, begins to suck in the air on its own. Suddenly, what were fans now become turbines that spin as the air is drawn in. The turbines are connected to generators that produce clean electricity as long as a constant source of waste heat is provided to feed the vortex, which at this point is a full-fledged tornado stretching into the troposphere.

Michaud calculates it would cost $60 million to build such a plant. But because it would be replacing the function of a cooling tower, that figure would be offset by up to $20 million. The end result, assuming it works and is safe, would be a 200 megawatt power station producing clean energy at less than half the cost of a coal plant.

Now, the obvious questions — Noise? Safety? Control? Birds? Airplanes? Fear? Michaud admits these are challenges, not technical ones, but public opinion challenges. Changes of perception can only come through education, he argues, meaning the best approach would be to build one pilot plant so people could see it working. He said noise wouldn’t be a huge issue because most of the noise in tornadoes comes from the debris they pick up, and the vortex engine wouldn’t suck in debris. He says birds know better, and no-fly zones could keep airplanes away. As for safety and control, the vortex would be kept stationary in the cylindrical structure so wouldn’t be able to move around — theoretically. Dampers on the air-intake ducts could control the air flow into the vortex building, acting like a throttle that can keep the vortex from twisting out of control.

Some aren’t so convinced, as you’ll read in the feature. But what strikes me is how such an idea is at least being considered, compared to five or 10 years ago when Michaud would be written off. Having covered this cleantech sector for three years now, I’ve noticed that with increased concern over global warming people are becoming more open-minded about thinking outside the box.

Speaking of outside the box, Michaud says his vortex engines could help us directly manage climate change. He says there’s no reason hundreds of his vortex engines couldn’t be stationed in the ocean along the equator, where ocean water is warm enough to provide energy for creating a tornado. Why do this? Well, the greenhouse effect prevents heat that hits the earth’s surface from radiating back into space, so Michaud argues that his vortex network would act like air conditioners that suck the hot air high into the atmosphere where the heat can more easily escape. All I can say is…. Wow!

This concept is similar in many ways to the solar tower idea being pursued in Australia. The idea there is that solar energy is collected passively on the ground in a kind of large sprawling greenhouse structure. The air within this greenhouse heats up and flows toward a large chimney in the centre. The air gathers speed as it rises through the chimney and a large turbine inside spins to generate electricity. The problem with this is that to get, say, the 200 megawatts that Michaud wants to produce from his vortex engine, you’d have to build a huge chimney that stretches a kilometre into the sky. The greenhouse on the surface would also need to be large. Both taking up a lot of space and very costly — the economics don’t work well. Michaud believes his vortex engine overcomes this problem because the vortex forms its own chimney of air, meaning one doesn’t have to be constructed. Also, by creating a tornado you generate much more power that can be converted into electricity.

So, crazy or ingenious? What do you think?

13 thoughts on “A new spin on clean energy: tornado power”

  1. It makes me wonder if it might be possible to build a solar chimney without the chimney, using his ideas… we might be able to get his tornado power plant without having to hook it up to a coal plant…. call it a “Solar Tornado.”

  2. It seems like the chance of these becoming untethered would be lower if they were on land or ocean too cold to support the tornado without added heat. Doing it at the equator would seem to increase the risk of having some get loose.

  3. Lets say we create these tornados now the military sees it as a potiential new weapon they create weoponised tornados. You can guess the rest of what I would say.

    D~W

  4. Seems like they would be of little military use. If one did set a tornado loose there would be little predicting where it would go or how long it would remain stable. Further, there would only be certain regions and seasons when it would work at all.

  5. If it doesn’t work, they lose a huge amount of money and millions of people might die, *sigh, we’re too many people on this planet anyways..

    if it works, Michael will become the saviour of us all..

    someone’s gotta allow nature its relief..

  6. Where are you getting the ‘millions of people might die’ crap from? From 1950-99 out of 40500+ naturally occurring tornadoes, there were 4400+ fatalities. To suggest ‘millions of people might die’ from a few dozen artificial ones getting out of control is to suggest they’d grow to like 10x their normal intensity and size.

  7. Tis true my friend. The death toll is extremely out-of-proportion. However, wouldn’t you love to eat 45 balloon animals with a cargo train as a salt shaker?

  8. This guy has come up with a potentially revolutionary concept, to cater for the modern day demand for energy and the requirement for ever ‘cleaner’ solutions. In principle, it seems like an infallible idea, as long as the so called controlls are in place. A machine with the power of this magnitude would require more than one fail safe shut off device.

    What concerns me most is that humans always think they can create what only Mother Nature should and as Murphy’s law dictates, there are currently a team of researchers (VORTEX2) in tornado alley, chasing nothing but clear skies and good weather, during what is nearing to be the height of the ‘chase season’. With this in mind I can only think that strange things happen when you least expect them to – not a reassuring concept when toying with a beast . . . and the notion that these machines may ‘assist in the fight against global warming’, I find truely preposterous! Ok, so the twister may assist in getting the heat from the earth to high into the atmosphere, something the earth apparently ‘struggles’ to do, due to the greenhouse effect, but who has had the idea to research what may happen in the atmosphere,when this sudden influx of concentrated hot air, from possibly tens or hundreds of these tornadoes, is pumped up? I cannot see any way that there will not be some kind of mammoth consequence by doing this! And don’t get me started on control, and I quoe: ‘Dampers on the air-intake ducts could control the air flow into the vortex building, acting like a throttle that can keep the vortex from twisting out of control.’ If that thing becomes self sustaining (admittedly, it would theoretically require this contant feed of hot air controlled by which ever system/computer human see fit for the purpose) and tears it’s way though the building, who will be to blame? What if there is a death? It kind of (wierdly) reminds me of the Simpsons episode where Homer time travels with his ‘posessed toaster’ and continually changes the course of history. I can’t help thinking that factors such as the gulf stream and other naturally occurring phenomenon should not be interrupted or disturbed by man. Whatever the consequences, the simple fact remains that we need to improve technology to cater for our power hungry needs, whilst becoming ever cleaner. All we can do is watch this space and wait until a prototype is built (hopefully on a small scale at first) and results can be recorded. Although the idea IS wacky, if all is done to control the vortex properly, there may be hundreds of these things all over the world – I’m visulising ‘Twister Farms’! Imaging what that would look like! Good luck to AVEtec and Michaud; I hope you get the funding to research this to it’s fullest potential.

  9. Also, I wonder what wind speeds ‘could’ be acheived and what speed the tornado would be sustained at whilst being used to generate power?

  10. First and formost Adam, get help.

    I just wanted to say the Ned Kahn Tornado, if that can be controlled and harnessed to generate enough power to support a household, you could build homes in the remotest of places and buy one of these generators to power it. We could have one in our backyard or basement and not need to pay the city for electricity. If it incorperates solar power/heat that would be efficient.

    Technology is astounding and the future is a playground for our imagination.

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