“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex. It takes a touch of genius and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.” – Albert Einstein
The grandest of innovators are those who go beyond trying to make a better ‘something’ to solve some problem, but instead do away with conventional wisdom and decide to come up with something new altogether. That takes a lot of guts to do and such innovators usually face the most skepticism, thus having to fight hard to prove their case. All the same, these are the same innovators who create a paradigm shift in the way problems are tackled, often creating completely new paths of development thanks to their radical thinking.
Wind is one of the options man has turned to in a bid to create more sustainable, non-polluting sources of energy. According to the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC), in 2011 the global wind power market grew by about 6% compared to 2010, and the 40.5 GW of new wind power brought on line in 2011 represents investments of more than €50 billion (about $68 billion) with China and India rising as major adopters of wind power. This upward trend is projected to continue into the future (especially as nations seek to look for ways to sidestep oil-dependance given it’s rising cost).
Turbine technology is typically the means by which wind is harvested for generating power. However, there are significant challenges with the technology. Turbines basically comprise propeller-like blades around a rotor, which turn in the wind. The rotor is connected to a shaft which turns a generator to produce electricity. Turbines are noisy due to the rotating blades which also pose a threat to flying birds. Moreover, there’s a limit to the efficiency of wind turbines. Betz law (a physics principle) asserts that a wind turbine can at best achieve 59.3% efficiency, why? According to the Wikipedia entry:
The Betz law means that wind turbines can never be better than 59.3% efficient. The law can be simply explained by considering that if all of the energy coming from wind movement into the turbine were converted into useful energy then the wind speed afterwards would be zero. But, if the wind stopped moving at the exit of the turbine, then no more fresh wind could get in – it would be blocked. In order to keep the wind moving through the turbine, to keep getting energy, there has to be some wind movement on the outside with energy left in it. There must be a ‘sweet spot’ somewhere – and there is, the Betz limit at 59.3%.
These are the challenges that Tunisian startup, Saphon Energy is aiming at solving with their wind-harnessing technology. The company is co-founded by Hassine Labaeid a former international banker and the inventor Anis Anouini both of whom dropped former careers to pursue their invention and their company. Their technology is actually not simply a better turbine but well, not quite a turbine at all really. They call it ‘Zero Blade Technology‘, dubbed the ‘Saphonian’. The inspiration for this technology would seem to be rather obvious – sails! According to their website:
Sailboats are an old technology that has been used for ages. Till today, a sail is the only system capable of capturing and converting the majority of the kinetic energy of the wind into mechanical power. Sails produce energy to power transportation. So we asked the question: can we use a sail-inspired wind technology to produce electricity?
According to the video interview below with entrepreneurship website, Wamda (here’s another great interview with Knowledge@Wharton), Hassine Labaeid claims their technology does not suffer the drawbacks of traditional turbines – it’s more efficient (breaking past the Betz limit), noiseless, does not kill birds and is cheaper to manufacture since they’re not using some of the more expensive parts of traditional turbines. In a different interview with EfficiencyLaw.com, Hassine states:
The overwhelming majority of the R&D efforts in the wind industry are being made in an attempt to try to improve the current bladed and rotational system. Some emerging ideas are using kites to harness high-speed winds; others are proposing promising new rotor shapes to improve the aerodynamic performances. But all of these ideas are still using the same bladed and rotational mechanism to convert the kinetic energy of the wind to electricity. Despite the drawbacks of this rotating system, we are not aware of a commercially competitive wind technology using a different system that doesn’t rotate.