Silicon Valley Funds Ontario Inventor’s Atmospheric Vortex Engine

Maybe it’s time to start talking about the “POWER bump.” Over two years ago, POWER magazine published a story about a new concept for generating power from waste heat. Today, Sarnia, Ontario’s AVEtec Energy Corp. announced that Silicon Valley entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel will fund a prototype Atmospheric Vortex Engine (AVE) invented by the company’s president, Louis Michaud. The technology holds promise for low-cost thermal plant efficiency gains by generating power from waste heat.

Thiel, who founded PayPal and was the first outside investor in Facebook, is using his Thiel Foundation’s Breakout Labs of Palo Alto, Calif., to fund a prototype AVE with $300,000. The prototype will be constructed in partnership with Lambton College in Sarnia, Ontario.

The AVE uses low-temperature waste heat to create a tornado-like atmospheric vortex. In contrast with a real tornado, the vortex can’t go anywhere because it is anchored to its heat source. So it is really more like a dust devil or waterspout, and it serves as a low-cost virtual chimney. A leading cooling tower engineering firm in Germany is discussing applications with its major clients. With the addition of a virtual chimney, a $15 million mechanical draft cooling tower would work even better than a $60 million natural draft cooling tower, the company says.

“The real prize will be using a large scale AVE to drive turbines,” said Michaud. “Using the low temperature waste heat from a 500MW thermal power plant could generate an additional 200MW of power, increasing capacity by 40% and producing perfectly green electricity at less than three cents per kilowatt hour.”

“We started with bench-top models and then did a CFD computer modeling study at the University of Western Ontario with Ontario Centres of Excellence funding. That led to the construction of a 4m diameter outdoor prototype which we built and tested successfully in Petrolia Ontario in 2009,” Michaud explained.

The 8-meter-diameter prototype at Lambton College will produce a 40-m-tall vortex with a diameter of 30 cm. It will power a 1-m-diameter turbine for testing purposes. “Power output increases geometrically with size, so commercialization will become economically viable when we build a 40m diameter prototype in 2015,” said Michaud.

Lambton College has a well-respected Instrumentation and Control Engineering Technology (ICET) program that qualifies students to work as technologists in energy, chemical, bioprocess, and refining industries. “Lambton College is the perfect partner for instrumentation and testing of this prototype, and we are looking forward to working with their faculty and students,” said Michaud.

For a detailed article about the technology, see “Harnessing Energy from Upward Heat Convection” in the March 2010 issue of POWER.

The AVE concept was presented at the 3rd International Solar Updraft Tower conference in Wuhan, China, in October 2012 and attracted great interest. Discussions are  under way with a Chinese university interested in working on the second-stage prototype.

Sources: POWER, AVEtec

—Gail Reitenbach, PhD, Managing Editor (@POWERmagazine)

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