Matthew Luethi knows a few things about those wind turbines you see cropping up everywhere that you might not know. One, they’re inefficient. Two, they break down a lot. And, three, he’s got a unique solution to both those problems.
Inefficient? Isn’t wind energy supposed to be all about efficiency, clean energy and all that? Well, yes, standard wind turbines do generate clean energy … but not as much as they could. The problem, Luethi says, is that your typical wind turbine uses an electronic steering system to make sure it’s pointing in the right direction to tap the wind’s energy. Operating electronics takes electricity, and where does that electricity come from? From the very power that the turbine is generating from the wind.
In fact, as much as 80 per cent of the energy generated by some turbine designs goes straight into running the turbine’s electronics. So the greatest beneficiary of a wind turbine’s electrical output is … the turbine itself.
“The bigger the turbine, the more they need,” Luethi says.
All those electronics create another problem too: they tend to break down frequently, meaning your typical wind turbine carries a relatively high maintenance cost. What’s more, repairing turbines takes special talent that not just anybody has.
Clearly, these are not your great-great-grandfather’s windmills. Not that you want them to be, but Luethi believes many of today’s wind turbines are needlessly complex. Why? “Because they’re designed by elecronic engineers,” he says.
No electronic engineer himself, Luethi first conceived of a simpler turbine design more than 20 years ago, as he sat in a London traffic jam, marveling at how easily a vertical advertising sign spun in a light wind. Luethi worked in farming at the time, supplying food to area restaurants, so he didn’t give the observation much more thought. Along rolls 1987, though, which brought a violent storm through his farm in Kent. The aftermath left him with another crucial observation: wouldn’t it be smart to include a regulator on wind turbines so they could operate without damage or shut down automatically even in extreme conditions?
These moments of inspiration continued to brew in Luethi’s mind until he retired in 2004 and decided to see whether he could actually develop a better wind turbine. He took to his garage, began tinkering and — within just two months — hit upon a design he felt would do the trick. He quickly applied for his first patent, set in motion the wheels to create a company and, voila, Luethi Enterprises Limited was born.
Luethi’s “Silent Wind Turbine” design is brilliantly simple and, because of its simplicity, also highly reliable. The turbine uses six pivoting blades rather than a typical rotor to catch the wind. The design lets the turbine begin spinning and capturing energy at relatively low wind speeds, but uses centrifugal force to close the blades if the wind grows too strong, thus preventing damage during wild storms.
There are other advantages as well: unlike typical wind turbines, Luethi’s turbine doesn’t extend into the flight window of passing birds. And because it doesn’t require any electronics to steer, it’s ideal for remote areas like forest fire watch stations and rural street lighting. In fact, an early prototype in the UK has consistently provided energy for an LED street lighting system in Nottinghamshire for three years now, no maintenace required.
“I haven’t found a disadvantage yet,” Luethi says.
Luethi’s design recently earned him a place on the British Engineering Excellence Awards shortlist for 2009. He’s also lined up the manufacturing connections he needs to bring his silent wind turbine onto the commercial market. And he’s got more than 500 firm orders in the UK alone, with more interest from overseas. All he needs now is an investor who can help him get from prototypes to commercialisation.
“What’s needed to deliver on these orders is a capital injection,” Luethi says. “The final R & D and testing would take less than a year to complete, and at that point we’d be ready to launch the silent wind turbine into the market. It’s a massive opportunity for someone to invest in a superior product while there’s still such a gap in the market.”
Know a clean-energy-minded VC who might fit the bill? Luethi says he’s ready to discuss a variety of possible deals: the most important thing to him now is to get the silent wind turbine onto the market and prove its advantages on a commercial scale.
Hi there, very interesting post. The reliability argument is compelling and it is heartbreaking to see a landscape ruined by a wind farm 30% of which is immobilised. But for me, the most inspiring aspect of this turbine is that it seems so well suited to a domestic and urban usage, meaning that many could be placed very close to the households using their energy freeing our wilderness from the ugly farms while still benefiting from the low carbon footprint of wind powered energy.
I posted my views on this turbine and your article on greenplanet.posterous.com.
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