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Wind Power Without The Mills

written for FORBES

MARCH 2016

Bill Tucker
Anchor & Reporter

WIND POWER Without The Mills

Vortex Bladeless is a radical company. It wants to completely change the way we get energy from the wind. Think wind stick instead of a massive tower with blades that capture blowing winds.

Wind stick. Really. Lest you think I’m mad. Below is a picture of this bladeless generator that helps with the visualization and explains the company name.

See? There are no blades. What that “stick” (the company prefers, mast) does is capitalize on an effect of the wind which has been a very serious problem for architects and engineers for decades.

When wind hits a structure and flows over its surfaces the flow changes and generates a cyclical pattern of vortices at the tail end of the flow. This is known as the vortex shedding effect which creates something known as vorticity and that is what Vortex Bladeless uses to generate energy. For those who need a explanation that exceeds my ability to fully explain, check out this link from Columbia University on the subject and then come back and join the rest of us who won’t wait for you. (you’re clearly ahead of us anyway).

If you are still here with me, the company likes to give a classic example of vorticity that is immediately understandable; the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge that came apart three months after it opened in 1940.

This clip posted on YouTube from a film made as the bridge undulated, wavered and ultimately shows the very dramatic effect of vortex shedding. Powerful stuff. Engineers immediately changed the way they designed and built bridges as a result of this incident.

What the engineers at Vortex Bladeless are doing is embracing this effect instead of avoiding the aerodynamic instabilities to capitalize on the oscillation and therefore capture the energy. The mast is designed to oscillate in the wind (which is very different from Blowing in the Wind).

As you can see, this is not your usual wind turbine. It consists of a fixed mast, a power generator that has no moving parts which come into contact with each other and a semi-rigid fiberglass cylinder. The power generator is a system of magnetic coupling devices which means there are no gears needing lubrication and an overall system needing less maintenance.

According to David Suriol Puigvert, one of the company’s co-founders (there are 3), the costs of a Votex system are dramatically lower than traditional wind turbines. The company publically claims maintenance costs that are 80% below a traditional wind turbine with manufacturing costs that are 53% lower. The lower maintenance & manufacturing costs add up an estimated lower cost per kilowatt.

In addition to the lower carbon footprint of a wind turbine, Vortex claims even further reductions. Because there are no spinning blades, no birds are caught up and sent to their deaths in the name of greener energy. And the lack of blades means something else; much lower noise. Did you know there is a bi-annual conference for the purpose of resolving noise complaints from the large utility-scale turbines? I didn’t. Having driven by large wind farms in the mid-west I can say that I never noticed a problem yet it’s good to know a lot of attention is being given to the issue.

The fly in this very cool ointment is that the technology is a proven concept and is currently is being tested and fine tuned in the field. This means we are about a year away from the reality of Vortex generated electricity. Initially, the co-founders were looking at large generating devices. That remains a longer-term goal but a much shorter range goal is a device of 4kW Vortex that would be about 13 meters tall (40’) and weigh about 220lbs. The company sees this generator being used in conjunction with solar generation for homes that are either off the grid or want to be off the grid. They are also developing a 100W device that will stand about 3 meters (9’) tall weighing about 22lbs. It is named the Vortex Atlantis and the company believes it can be used in off-grid areas to bring power to third world/developing villages where power could be a matter of life and again, used with solar generation. Those devices are forecast to be on the market in roughly a year.A 1MW generator is currently forecast to be about 3 years from market.

Just a quick word about the company before wrapping up. Vortex is a Spanish tech start-up. Its funding, so far, has come from a Repsol Foundation Grant, a loan from the Spanish Government and venture capitalists in Spain (Spanish Angels). In February of this year, Vortex Bladeless relocated to Boston.

Here it is working with Harvard University, SunEdison, IDEO and is working with venture capitalists for its next round of Series A funding. Due to public interest in investing in the company, they will launch a crowdfunding campaign on June 1. As always, look before you leap.

This is very exciting technology but let your brain guide your investing not your excitement.

Big Data Goes To Work

written for FORBES

Oct. 2015

Bill Tucker
Anchor & Reporter

BIG DATA Goes to Work

Big Data. It’s everywhere. You can’t turn on the tv or stroll out onto the internet without hearing about big data solutions.

At the end of September, one of my fellow Forbes contributors published a column on 20 Mind-Boggling Facts Everyone Must Read. And they are, mind-boggling. The numbers and the volume of data listed are huge. But let’s face it, big data is truly big data. Most people can’t even grasp the concept of a Trillion, as in our federal debt is greater than $19-Trillion dollars. We know people are millionaires and some Presidential candidates are billionaires, but a trillion is one thousand billion.  What?

As a business/financial reporter, the challenge was to present data in a format so that people could grasp but it is becoming increasingly impossible. For example, the folks at EMC.com, last year estimated that data is doubling in size every two years and that by 2020 the data the create annually will reach 44 Zettabytes. 1 zettabyte equals a thousand exabytes or a billion terabytes. AH! My backup drive is 1 terabytes so 44 billion of my external drives is what we are expected to be generating in terms of new data annually at that point. See what I mean? Yeah, it’s a big pile.

The question to me isn’t how much data we create but what are we going to do with it besides be buried under the weight of it.

There is no point of having it unless we make it work. Meridium is a company that makes its money capturing big data and putting it to work. What appeals to me is that they are doing this in an industrial setting to improve operations and not in a capturing everything that can be learned about me and sold to a marketing firm sort of way. And because it is data being collected and used in this sort of setting, it makes understanding more interesting and a whole lot less irritable.

Bonz Hart is the CEO of Meridium. As we began discussing big data, he gave me an easy context in which to understand it. Once upon a time when we bought a car, we could open up the hood and understand what we were looking at; we had a general idea of how it worked and knew we could tinker with that engine on our own. Now, open up the hood of any new car and in order to understand it and how it is operating you have to plug into serial ports to get readings so that you know what is not working, what work needs to be done, whether it needs to be done now or later and when it’s done how long are you going to be without your car.

The same sort of transformation has taken place with industrial facilities. They have grown increasingly complex and yes, every machine, every pipeline, every transmission point collects data ready to be read. Reading all of that data is what Meridium does for all sorts of plants and facilities. Staying with the car analogy, this data (and there is a lot of it so it qualifies as Big Data) allows for better decision making it deciding when a plant needs to shut down for repairs, make more efficient use of up-time, output or in other words, to know what condition their condition is in. (sorry, I couldn’t help myself)

Here’s how that is working in the energy space. Dakota Gas is a coal gasification company which converts coal into natural gas and chemicals. It is the largest commercial coal gasification facility in the United States. Using big data collection, the company estimates that it has saved $8-million in maintenance and downtime.

Bruce Power, which operates the largest nuclear power generating plant in the world, works with Meridium to collect data and analyze it. The plant credits its relationship with Big Data and Meridium with allowing the plant to have safely run for more than 500 days in continuous operation.
The point, according to Hart is that we no longer have to work off a set of assumptions. The data is being generated to help manage and maintain assets.

Big data is more than an overwhelming concept; it’s here to stay and only getting bigger. Making it a functional reality is what we have to do with it. Big Data can lead to better safety, better environmental practices, protect brands and generate better profits. All of which is much more understandable that a zettabyte.

The Power Of The Force

written for FORBES

DECEMBER 2015

Bill Tucker
Anchor & Reporter

THE POWER OF THE FORCE – The Curious Case Of The EmDrive

We talk a good game when it comes to disruptive. Go to LinkedIn and enter the word “disruptive” in the search box and you will get a long list of Disruptive references. It is a hot word, especially when it comes to technology. We love claims of disruption. But when we get right down to it, we’re not really comfortable with the disruptive.

We like conventional wisdom, commonly accepted facts. In pop culture, a good example can be found in the movie, Spotlight. The movie is the story about the revelation of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests. Other journalists, in the same newsroom, didn’t like the story. They were uncomfortable with it and thought there was simply no way that priests could or would sexually abuse children We now know better.

This happens in science as well. The earth was flat until it wasn’t anymore but for the few who argued the earth was round it was a very uncomfortable time. When nobody sailed off an edge, opinions changed. The earth for centuries was presumed to be the center of the universe. Those who dared to suggest otherwise were mocked or cast out of their church. Empirical, verifiable evidence changed all of that.

Skepticism in the face of claims of disruptive claims is not surprising, the word disruptive means to cause difficulty or annoyance. Synonyms include; annoying, irritating, exasperating, maddening, infuriating, irksome, pesky, vexatious, vexing, bothersome, nettlesome, tiresome, worrying, worrisome, disturbing, and upsetting.

Not exactly something you might readily embrace unless you are the one doing the disrupting. And as much as we’d like to think otherwise, sometimes disruption is just what we need.
But, sometimes it’s a con.

And that is the question when it comes to a fascinating technology called the EmDrive, a radically new theoretical jet propulsion technology. (EmDrive is short for Electromagnetic Drive.)

Now, I admit that I have a weakness when it comes to new shiny things. I am especially vulnerable to shiny new things that are potentially revolutionary. EmDrive is the brainchild of Roger Shawyer a British engineer and physicist. His UK-based company is SPR Ltd (Space Propulsion Research). Here is a link to his original research that The New Scientist made available in 2006.

To say Shawyer’s research is controversial is an understatement. I will be the first to admit that I am a writer and not a scientist. While I don’t understand the physics involved, I do understand controversy and EmDrive is controversy on steroids. If you are reading this and are familiar with Shawyer’s research, you already have your own opinion as to whether it is valid.

For the uninitiated, the theory of EmDrive has a fundamental problem in that it appears to violate a basic law of physics as we currently understand it known as the conservation of momentum.

There are a million places on the internet where you find discussions about this.

One of my favorite science websites, IFLScience. The write debunks EmDrive and explains very clearly why. Simple, right? It’s all just BS.

Ah, but this is where it gets interesting and entertaining; NASA has a lab, Eagleworks, where all sorts of advanced, theoretical, crazy ideas get their tires kicked. Well, this autumn notes began appearing on blogs that Eagleworks scientists appeared to have validated the theories of EmDrive.

One well-written story appeared in the International Business Times. You can also find a discussion on the nasaspaceflight forum. None of which as deterred lots of very smart people, who steadfast in their skepticismDiscover says, no.

But.

A lot of criticism has been focused on the fact that Shawyer and SPR (Space Propulsion Research) have never published a peer-reviewed paper, a very valid criticism. That changed this past summer when the International Academy of Astronautics published this paper on Shawyer’s work.

Wired loved it as did Mashable. Hacked declared a state of EmDrive War. Even the folks as IFLScience got excited again.

Roger Shawyer is an interesting man. In email exchanges, he has remained adamant that his theory is valid and that all any “real scientist” has to do is “do the math”. He says that he and his lab already on the second generation of research on the technology, which holds the promise of better, stronger results. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t go so far as to share those new results with me.

Shawyer is plain-spoken in his urgency in prodding the U.S. to exploit his technology. He claims that scientists in China are already making headway. And, indeed, in 2013 Wired UK filed a story on Chinese scientists who had successfully built an EmDrive engine but I haven’t found furthering reporting on what, if any, progress has been made in China.

I reached out to the US Air Force as Shawyer claims a legal relationship with that branch of our military services. According to Ed Gulick in the Public Affairs Office.

“The Air Force is aware of EmDrive and the ongoing research but is simply watching to see if and when the technology becomes viable. We could not find any evidence that the AF has an investment in or a licensing agreement for the technology.”

NASA was equally intriguing. While there has been a number of reports referencing some confirmation of EmDrive by scientists at NASA’s Eagleworks Lab, NASA spokesman Jay Bolden didn’t respond to questions about the labs work or even directly about EmDrive. His response:

“While research into theoretical faster-than-light travel from a team at the Johnson Space Center has created headlines, this is a conceptual investigation. The agency is committed to the priorities and investments identified by the NASA Strategic Space Technology Investment Plan. Through these investments, NASA will develop the capabilities necessary to send humans further into space than ever before, including missions in the proving ground of space, like the asteroid redirect mission, and eventually Mars.”

Boeing, which once allegedly had a Non-Disclosure Agreement with SPR via its Phantom Works division has even less to say about SPR, Shawyer or EmDrive. A spokeswoman for Phantom Works would only comment to say that Boeing is not working with Shawyer now but would not say whether the company has worked with the EmDrive technology or what its assessment of the technology is.

If you are curious about what that plan looks like, you can check it out here.

Is this real or an illusion? I don’t know. I do know it is intriguing. If it is real, the theory has ramifications far beyond launching a satellite into space which was the original intent of the work. It is exciting. It is fun. It is the kind of stuff that gets people excited about science.
And it just gets me that much more in the mood to see Star Wars; The Force Awakens and believe me, I didn’t need any further motivation in that regard.