From a localised thunderstorm to a tornado to an almighty typhoon, storms are swirling cells that unleash on us wind, lightning and rainfall.
With every storm comes a huge release of energy that we could potentially harness, but the very nature of the forces makes this a challenge for renewable energy generation. Traditional three-blade wind turbines, for example, are actually shut down during storms to protect their giant blades and turbines, and are rated only up to a certain wind speed.
But we might soon be able to harness those pounding storm winds, thanks to a Japanese invention.
Designed to withstand the 20-30 typhoons that crash into Japan’s many islands each year, the ‘Typhoon Turbine’, an eggbeater-styled wind turbine, has been built to capture wind energy from a storm.
Typhoons, cyclones or hurricanes can hold up to half the world’s annual energy generation inside them.
Japanese engineer Atsushi Shimizu, who designed the Typhoon Turbine with his company Challenergy, says just one typhoon could power Japan for 50 years.
“If the turbine can keep producing power when a typhoon hits, that means it can work anywhere,” said Shimizu.
That means a big storm, such as the recent hurricanes devastating Central and North America, may be able to be harnessed, along with winter storms that sweep through Europe, and cyclones in the southern hemisphere.
The Typhoon Turbine
The Typhoon Turbine itself spins on its omnidirectional axis, generating power. The rotation and speed of the turning blades can be limited to prevent them spinning out of control, allowing the turbine to survive in strong, unpredictable and gusting winds.
The key to the device spinning is the same force that football players use to curve a ball when kicking. The Magnus Effect is the sideways force that causes a spinning object on a straight path to deviate away. It’s not easy to see over a short distance but this video shows the effect over a long distance:
Recent tests of an early Typhoon Turbine prototype yielded just under 30 per cent efficiency – too low for everyday use when compared with traditional turbines which are closer to 40 per cent efficiency.
But during a storm, the Typhoon Turbine comes into its own, surviving the direct hits yielding huge amounts of energy for short periods.
The challenge for the Typhoon Turbine, generating large amounts of power in short bursts, is how best to store it. Scientists and engineers will need to utilise the instantaneous surge of power across long periods.
Large-scale battery banks, pumping water into dams for hydropower, and even sea storage are all viable energy storage options, each with their own challenges.
In August 2016, the first seven metre high prototype of the Typhoon Turbine device was installed on the southern island of Okinawa in Japan. It survived winds that would usually shut down a three-blade turbine.
Further tests will be undertaken in a wind-swept area of Hokkaido, where large batteries have already been installed.