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Inventions & Questionable Turbines

April 6, 2013
Paul Gipe

Another Bladeless Windmill Stalks the Mindscape


Here we go again. Another windmill invention is stalking the Internet. This time it is the “bladeless” windmill, reintroduced.

Atlantic Cities first published a glowing piece (Invention of the Day: A Bladeless Windmill) that fits all the pie-in-the-sky standard checklist.

Will change the way we use wind energy. Check.

  • Silent. Check.
  • No shadows. Hmm, that’s a new one.
  • No maintenance. Check.
  • Ideal for urban environments. Check.
  • Cheap, efficient, reliable. Check.

At least they don’t try to hype it as “bird-friendly”.

The author back-pedaled from the initial hype with a follow-up piece (How Long Must We Wait for the Bladeless Windmill?) trying to put the “invention” into perspective. It’s not here now. There’s no prototype. The “inventor” is looking for money. It could be quite some time before anyone sees one of these things in “action”.

Ok, a little more perspective.

Bladeless windmills are not new. Wikipedia even has an entry for this topic. Someone was flouting bladeless windmills in 1967.

So though the Web may be buzzing about this “new” idea, it’s not new. We’ve been there, done that. And, importantly, we've moved on.

I remember someone receiving USDOE funding in the 1970s to study piezoelectric wind-energy converters for buildings. The wind would flap little plastic strips, creating static electricity. Somehow they would harness this static electricity. Buildings would eventually be covered with the things.

Yep, hasn’t happened.

While the uninitiated may think the Dutch are leaders in wind energy, they would be sadly mistaken. The Dutch gave up leadership in wind decades ago.

In case that’s not clear, TU Delft is in the Netherlands, as in Delft pottery. The Dutch make great pottery, but they haven’t made a great windmill in, say, a century or two.

There have been other questionable products or “inventions” that have come out of TU Delft over the years--products where the hype greatly exceeded performance of the wind turbines in the field.

What can we learn from this episode?

First, that it will happen again—as it has happened many times before. Journalists often don’t take the time to investigate claims made by inventors. Then the post  gets circulated far and wide while the truth is still putting its pants on. Google bladeless windmill and see what I mean.

Second, that such ideas—we can’t even calls this an invention at this stage—appeal to our human desire for a panacea. This new idea will solve all our windmill “problems,” bringing Utopia closer to hand.

Remember, something that doesn’t exist can’t be tested, because, well, it doesn’t exist. No one can say with certainty that it won’t do what the dreamer-schemer says. Journalists don’t understand uncertainty. Worse, most don’t care. When they even bother, they’ll put in a quote from a “skeptic” like me, then go on explaining all the wondrous things this nonexistent thing will do—when it exists, of course.

 

 


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