The Clean Break column below is about an inventor I wrote about in my book Mad Like Tesla. After years of trying to be taken seriously, Louis Michaud, a retired refinery engineer, has finally received some financial backing to build a prototype of his atmospheric vortex engine — i.e. man-made tornado machine — which will create a 40-metre high twister and demonstrate in principle how it would produce electricity from waste heat. The funder in question is a pretty big deal. PayPal founder Peter Thiel, a billionaire also known as being the first outside investor in Facebook, has awarded Michaud $300,000 through his Breakout Labs program, part of the Thiel Foundation. Michaud hopes to have an operational model of his vortex engine done by summer 2013.
Louis Michaud couldn’t ask for a better partner. But he had to turn to California to find him.
The retired refinery engineer from Sarnia, whose grand idea of harnessing energy from man-made tornadoes was first profiled in the Toronto Star back in July 2007, has captured the attention of PayPal founder Peter Thiel, the 45-year-old billionaire who is also known as the first outside investor in Facebook.
Thiel’s philanthropic group, the San Francisco-based Thiel Foundation, announced Thursday that it has awarded Michaud $300,000 to build a prototype of a machine that can create mini tornadoes about 40 metres tall.
The money will come from the foundation’s Breakout Labs program, launched in 2012, which was created to support “audacious scientific exploration” by helping early-stage companies advance their most “radical” ideas.
And, by today’s measure, Michaud’s idea is the definition of radical. Through his company AVEtec — the AVE standing for “atmospheric vortex engine” — the long-term plan is to take waste heat from a thermal power plant or industrial facility and use it to create a controllable twister that can generate electricity.
Here’s how it works: Waste heat is blown at an angle into a large circular structure, creating a flow of spinning hot air. We all know heat travels upward and as it does it spins itself into a rising vortex.
The higher the twister grows, the greater the temperature differential between top and bottom, creating stronger and stronger convective forces that act like fuel for the vortex, eventually allowing it to take on a life of its own.
The result is that hot air initially blown into the bottom of the structure starts getting sucked in so forcefully that it spins electricity-generating turbines installed at the base.
“Using the low-temperature waste heat from a 500 megawatt thermal power plant could generate an additional 200 megawatts of power,” said Michaud. “That would increase capacity by 40 per cent and produce perfectly green electricity at less than three cents per kilowatt hour.”
He should have probably said “could” instead of “would.” There are still many hurdles to jump before getting electricity that cheap. That said, it’s still a nice goal.
Lindy Fishburne, executive director of Breakout Labs, said AVEtec is the first of what’s expected to be more non-U.S. grants awarded through the program, which has so far funded 12 projects — most of them in the category of biotechnology.
One of those companies is called Modern Meadow, a tissue engineering company that has come up with a way to make meat and leather products using 3D bioprinting — no animal killing required. Animal cells are instead replicated in a bioreactor and “bioassembled” using a special three-dimensional printer.
“The range of who we fund is wide,” said Fishburne, adding that AVEtec represents the program’s first clean energy grant, which is aimed at helping Michaud develop a large enough prototype to convince future funders — angel investors and venture capitalists — that it’s worth taking to the next stage of development.
The money, she said, is relatively modest compared to the potential of the technology. “The impact of this project could be so significant that it makes it a compelling space for us to play in,” she said.
The prototype will be built in partnership with Sarnia’s Lambton College, which will host the project. The structure that houses the vortex will be about eight metres in diameter. The twister it produces will only be capable of powering a small turbine, but it’s enough to prove the design works.
“Power output increases geometrically with size, so commercialization will become economically viable when we build a 40-metre diameter structure,” said Michaud. A full-scale facility, one capable of generating 200 megawatts, would need to be 100 meters in diameter and stretch many kilometres high.
Given the destructive history of naturally formed tornadoes, many people might be freaked out by the thought of having man-made tornadoes intentionally scattered near cities and power plants.
Michaud assured that his twisters are much safer to operate and control than, say, a nuclear plant. And because they’re fuelled by the waste heat that’s initially supplied, all the operator has to do is throttle back or cut off that heat to weaken or stop the vortex.
It’s been a long road for Michaud, who began working on the concept as a hobby in the mid-1970s and pursued it full time after retiring from Imperial Oil in 2006.
His work is inspired by French scientist Edgard Nazare, who during the 1940s and 1950s tried unsuccessfully to pursue the idea of a cyclone generator similar in principle to Michaud’s vortex engine.
The scientific community in France wrote off Nazare as a crackpot, but Michaud began corresponding with him in 1973 and the two bounced ideas off each other for several years.
After Nazare’s death in 1998, Michaud felt compelled to carry the torch, starting with the creation of a bench-top prototype he fired up in his own garage and later a four-metre diameter model used for outdoor testing.
The next prototype will be part of a two-year project, with testing to start at Lambton next summer. Of note is that Michaud, having won the support of the Thiel Foundation, could not convince the Ontario Centres of Excellence that his project was worthy of funding.
So much for homegrown support.
Funds from Breakout Labs do come with some strings attached. Thiel’s foundation is entitled to a 3 per cent royalty until AVEtec has paid back three times the amount of the original grant, which works out to $900,000. Breakout also gets a warrant to purchase 1 per cent of AVEtec equity at 1 cent per share.
Sounds like a fair deal for a company that has struggled to be taken seriously. Clearly, Canada needs more Peter Thiels willing to give radical ideas a chance to prove skeptics wrong.
Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla (which features a chapter on Michaud’s vortex engine), writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.