Wind-turbine designers are taking their cues from fish and whales.
Think about wind energy and chances are that fish and whales aren’t the first things that pop into your head. But the marine enviroment is just where some researchers are looking for inspiration to improve wind energy. They’re applying the concepts of biomimicry—using nature’s designs in their own—and it’s working, as evidenced by big strides in efficiency and output. Janine Benyus, an expert on biomimicry who has been writing, consulting, and teaching on the topic for more than a decade, says that aping nature’s designs generally occurs on three levels. We can mimic form (the shape of a plant or an animal), we can mimic a process, and we can mimic an ecosystem ("like having a city that functions as well as a forest," says Benyus).
With wind power, there are opportunities across that spectrum, and they are helping to address some of the biggest problems in the field: turbine efficiencies and space requirements. The efficiency of wind turbines suffers largely because of the variability of wind speeds. At higher speeds, most new turbines function well, but just as an airplane loses lift as its air speed drops past a certain point, turbine blades stall when the wind speed drops. In order to handle a variety of wind speeds without stalling, most turbine blades are positioned well below the ideal angle for generating power. If there was a way to tilt those blades so that more of the wind’s energy could be captured—in effect, increasing the angle of attack of the wind on the blade—the output of the turbine could be increased.
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