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December 18, 2012

Grid-Tied Tornado Power: Taking the Energy Industry by Storm



Canadian engineer Louis Michaud has an idea that could blow the wind industry wide open. He wants to harness the power of a manmade tornado and tie it to the grid.

That’s the sort of innovation that PayPal’s (News - Alert) prosperous founder, Peter Thiel, intends to buy into. His philanthropic group, the San Francisco-based Thiel Foundation, just awarded Michaud $300,000 to build a prototype of a machine that can create “mini” tornadoes. In any other context, that would mean “towering,” because each twister will be about 120 feet tall.

The money will come from the foundation's Breakout Labs program—which was launched in November 2011, in order to help early stage companies to “advance their most radical ideas.” Indeed, according to Thiel’s website, Breakout Labs steps in where more timid souls fear to tread: “Venture capital firms want research that can be quickly brought to market, and federal funding offers little room for risky, unproven ideas. We are jumping into this funding gap to energize innovative research.”

Michaud is ready to go. His company, Sarnia, Ontario-based AVEtec (an acronym for Atmospheric Vortec Engine technology) proposes to harnesses the physics of tornadoes to produce extremely cheap and clean energy. In his design, warm or humid air is introduced into a circular station, where it takes the form of a rising vortex, or a controlled tornado. The temperature difference between this heated air and the atmosphere above it supports the vortex and drives multiple turbines. The vortex can be shut down at any time by turning off the source of warm air.

Among its advantages over other sources of energy, AVE power generation neither produces carbon emissions nor needs energy storage. AVEtec projects that the cost of the energy it generates could be as low as 3 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh), making it one of the least expensive forms of energy production. An AVE power station could have a diameter of 300 feet and generate 200 megawatts of electrical power, the same order of magnitude as conventional coal power stations.

“The power in a tornado is undisputed,” said Michaud. “My work has established the principles by which we can control and exploit that power to provide clean energy on an unprecedented scale. With the funding from Breakout Labs, we are building a prototype in partnership with [Sarnia-based] Lambton College to demonstrate the feasibility and the safety of the atmospheric vortex engine.” 


Above, Louis Michaud harnesses tornado power. (Photo courtesy of Thiel Foundation.)

To date, Breakout Labs has awarded one dozen grants of up to $350,000 each. Breakout Labs accepts and funds proposals on a rolling basis. “Our … grant recipients… are vastly different in their technologies, company strategies, and goals,” said Breakout Labs Executive Director Lindy Fishburne. “What unites them is ground-breaking science coupled with the passion, vision, and creativity of their founders. We are delighted to bring them into the Breakout Labs community.”

Previous grants, announced earlier in the year, have been awarded to companies working on cultured meat, biomarker detection, brain reconstruction, reversible cryopreservation, human cell re-engineering, universal airborne contaminant detection, artificial protein therapeutics, and antimatter-based fuel.

“The world faces enormous challenges—resource scarcity, aging populations, economic mismanagement—and we need more visionary scientists and engineers like those at Breakout Labs making authentic discoveries and bringing world-changing products to market,” said Thiel Foundation President Jonathan Cain. “We hope Breakout Labs inspires more investors to fund real innovation; more young people to pursue technology and entrepreneurship; and more nonprofits to foster risky, radical ideas.”

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Edited by Rachel Ramsey

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