Inventor Louis Michaud watches as a tornado-like vortex rises from a small “vortex engine” in the garage of his Sarnia home in May. Michaud believes a full-scale vortex engine could be used to produce clean energy for 200,000 homes.
Taming tornadoes to power cities
‘Vortex engines’ fed by hot water from a nearby power plant could spin turbines, engineer says Tyler Hamilton / Jul 21, 2007
A curious-looking wood cylinder with a round opening at the top and a small heating element at the bottom sits in Louis Michaud’s garage, bicycles hanging overhead and a workbench pressed against the wall. The retired refinery engineer picks up a propane torch, lowers it into the opening, and lights a tiny piece of saltpetre. A loud fizzling is heard and a thick smoke begins to rise from the centre. At first the smoke has no form, but it soon swirls upward into a well-defined vortex – what, on a larger scale, you might call a tornado. “The air is being drawn in on its own. There’s no fan or anything involved,” says Michaud, explaining the physics of convection and how rising air behaves like a spinning top. “This is what’s going on in the atmosphere. The air is heated in the bottom by the sun and then it rises, cools and comes back down again.”
It may seem like a hobby – a home science experiment meant to occupy time during retirement – but this 66-year-old isn’t just tinkering. Michaud has spent the past 40 years studying tornados and hurricanes, and is convinced it’s possible to engineer and control powerful, full-scale whirlwinds and harness their energy to produce emission-free electricity. Forget wind farms and their intermittent operation: the future of electricity generation could be tornado power on demand. Michaud has adapted this process to create what he calls a vortex engine, and has patented the invention in both Canada and the United States. Recently, he formed a company called AVEtec Energy Corp. with an aim to turning this unconventional – and to many, unthinkable – approach to electricity generation into a commercial reality.
His challenge now is to persuade venture capitalists, energy executives and at least one community to back the construction of a full-scale vortex engine, capable of producing a power-packed funnel cloud that stretches kilometres into the atmosphere and runs on waste heat, ideally from a power plant. “I’m talking about a 200-megawatt device, which would be 200 metres in diameter,” says Michaud. That’s enough electricity for 200,000 homes. “The vortex would be one to 20 kilometres high, and have 10 turbines (at the bottom) each producing 20 megawatts.” It’s a scary thought, and a great basis for a movie script, bringing together the don’t-mess-with-nature themes of the films Twister and Jurassic Park. One can imagine the back of this DVD case: “A monster man-made tornado loses control and jumps out of its pen, terrorizing a community and ripping a path through dozens of harmless wind and solar farms. Rated R.”
Michaud concedes that ideas related to weather modification and “cloud seeding” are typically shunned by the scientific community and feared by the public. “People say it’s impossible initially. And then they say, well, if you can do it, it’s too scary – how are you going to control it?” he says. “But once you demonstrate you can operate it safely in a remote location, then you might be willing to have one located in a city.” He’s critical of the vast majority of climatologists who focus exclusively on weather prediction, arguing that it’s a waste of their skills and research efforts. “I tend to think that prediction is not the way of understanding things.” It’s not likely we’ll be seeing tornado generating stations operating in Toronto anytime soon, but Michaud’s vortex engine is drawing attention, and has already attracted some research funding from the Ontario Centres of Excellence.
The University of Western Ontario’s wind-tunnel laboratory, through a seed investment from OCE’s Centre for Energy, is studying the dynamics of a one-metre version of Michaud’s vortex engine – like the one in his garage. The lab is also conducting computer simulations to look at the impact of cross winds on a 20-metre model. “When the idea was first brought forward we were like, `tethered tornados,’ hmmm … But we looked at the patent and thought it merited further study,” says Nicole Geneau, manager of business development at OCE’s Centre for Energy. “We have a strong history of picking things up that seem like crazy ideas, and at least giving them a shot. We should not stand in the way because of preconceived bias.” Rick Whittaker, vice-president of investments at Sustainable Development Technology Canada, which funds clean-technology demonstration projects, also keeps an open mind. “They’re not violating the laws of physics. The question isn’t whether this strange idea will work or not, it’s a matter of the degree to which it would be more economically attractive than the alternative. “That’s the type of idea we actually seek out.”
The next step is to build and study the performance of a four-metre model, requiring a further injection of OCE funds of about $300,000. The plan would be to scale up from there, moving on to 10-metre, 20-metre, and 50-metre pilot plants, likely requiring millions of dollars in both public and private funding. On a commercial scale, the plant would require a heat host, such as a power plant, that could provide the vortex engine with a constant supply of hot water “fuel.”
Here’s how it works: Waste heat, a byproduct of any fossil fuel or nuclear plant operation that is typically vented into the air through cooling towers, is carried by water pipe to a vortex engine facility nearby. The hot water enters a number of cooling cells stationed around the facility where fans push dry air across hot pipes. The air picks up the heat and enters the vortex through 10 or more angled ducts, causing the air to swirl inside. The heated air begins to rise in a spinning motion, gathering energy the higher it gets and creating a vortex. As the vortex gathers momentum it begins to suck air through the cooling cells, at which point the fans that initially pushed in the air now function as turbines that generate electricity. As long as the heat is available, the vortex will keep spinning.
Michaud figures that a commercial plant of between 200 metres and 400 metres in diameter could generate 200 megawatts of baseload power and be built for $60 million. But $20 million of that, he points out, would be offset because the power plant would no longer need a separate cooling tower. Compared to nuclear, even coal, it’s a bargain. Michaud estimates that one of his vortex engines would cost less than one quarter the cost of a coal plant, and that’s excluding the cooling tower benefits and the fact that no ongoing fuel expenses are needed to keep it going.
Nilton Renno, a professor at the department of atmospheric, ocean and spaces sciences at the University of Michigan, has spent his career studying tornados and water spouts. He says there’s no reason why Michaud’s vortex engine wouldn’t work. “The concept is solid,” says Renno. Top atmospheric scientists from the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have joined AVEtec’s advisory board. The group includes respected MIT meteorology professor Kerry Emanuel, perhaps best known for establishing a strong link between hurricane intensity and global warming.
Still, Renno isn’t without reservations. He’s particularly concerned about the ability to control such a powerful monster. “The amount of energy involved is huge. Once it gets going, it may be too hard to stop,” he says. Michaud argues that the power of the vortex engine could be turned down, or shut off completely, by limiting the amount of air flow into the base of the funnel. He also dismisses any idea that his vortex engine would be loud and menacing, pointing out that tornados make noise and become more destructive as they draw debris into their funnels.
The vortex engine, by contrast, would be kept stationary in its arena and only draw in debris-free air, making it far less visible than a typical tornado. Renno isn’t convinced. He points out that as the vortex grows it would likely be able to pull in warm ambient air from many kilometres away, creating the possibility for debris accumulation and making it more difficult to manage. Asked whether he’d accept a vortex engine in his own community, Renno replied: “No, not close to my house” – at least not until the concept is proven. Whittaker of Sustainable Development Technology Canada says public demonstrations will be key to gaining acceptance. “Perceptions are created because of lack of information.”
Michaud realizes he will need to break down a lot of mental barriers before pushing his idea beyond the stage of intellectual curiosity. He doesn’t rule out starting small, possibly promoting the creation of less powerful vortex engines as tourist attractions that the public can visit, see and learn about. “I was thinking if we got one of these to produce a tornado 200 metres high, the first people to buy one would be Disneyland.” If people accept it, the potential is unlimited. He says down the road, hundreds of vortex engines could be located in the ocean along the equator, where the warm tropical water would provide an endless source of energy.
Why would anyone do such a thing? To cool the planet, Michaud says. Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are what prevent the sun’s heat from radiating back into space, he explains. A series of controlled tornados along the equator would carry that heat to the outer edges of the atmosphere, where it could more easily escape. In other words, Michaud believes man-made tornados could function as exhaust systems for the planet, a massive air conditioner that could help manage global warming.
There’s simply too much at stake to ignore this potential, he says. “I could work as a consultant and get more money for the effort, but this is something I like doing. If you realize there’s a potential there and nobody is doing anything about it, I don’t think it would be right for me to say, okay, nobody is listening – too bad.” Whatever the outcome, Michaud’s four grandchildren, aged 4 to 8, are loyal backers of his work. Whenever they visit, the first words out of their mouths, says Michaud, are: “Grandpa, can you show us the vortex again?” And his wife? “She’s been quite patient.”
Principal, Vortex Engine
Brian Monrad, M.A., LL.B., C.A.
V.P. Finance and Administration
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Mechanical energy is produced when heat is carried upward by convection in the atmosphere. A process for producing a tornado-like vortex and concentrating mechanical energy where it can be captured is proposed. The existence of tornadoes proves that low intensity solar radiation can produce concentrated mechanical energy. It should be possible to control a naturally occurring process. Controlling where mechanical energy is produced in the atmosphere offers the possibility of harnessing solar energy without having to use solar collectors.
The Atmospheric Vortex Engine (AVE) is a process for capturing the energy produced when heat is carried upward by convection in the atmosphere. The process is protected by patent applications and could become a major source of electrical energy. The unit cost of electrical energy produced with an AVE could be half the cost of the next most economical alternative.
A vortex engine consists of a cylindrical wall open at the top and with tangential air entries around the base. Heating the air within the wall using a temporary heat source such as steam starts the vortex. The heat required to sustain the vortex once established can be the natural heat content of warm humid air or can be provided in cooling towers located outside of the cylindrical wall and upstream of the deflectors. The continuous heat source for the peripheral heat exchanger can be waste industrial heat or warm seawater. Restricting the flow of air upstream of the deflectors regulates the intensity of the vortex. The vortex can be stopped by restricting the airflow to deflectors with direct orientation and by opening the airflow to deflectors with reverse orientation. The electrical energy is produced in turbo-expanders located upstream of the tangential air inlets. The pressure at the base of the vortex is less than ambient pressure because of the density of the rising air is less than the density of ambient air at the same level. The outlet pressure of the turbo-expanders is sub-atmospheric because they exhaust into the vortex.
The Atmospheric Vortex Engine has the same thermodynamic basis as the solar chimney. The physical tube of the solar chimney is replaced by centrifugal force in the vortex and the atmospheric boundary layer acts as the solar collector. The AVE needs neither the collector nor the high chimney. The efficiency of the solar chimney is proportional to its height which is limited by practical considerations, but a vortex can extend much higher than a physical chimney. The cylindrical wall could have a diameter of 200 m and a height of 100 m; the vortex could be 50 m in diameter at its base and extend up to the tropopause. Each AVE could generate 50 to 500 MW of electrical power.
The average upward convective heat flux at the bottom atmosphere is 150 W/m2, one sixth of this heat could be converted to work while it is carried upward by convection. The heat to work conversion efficiency of the process is approximately 15% because the heat is received at an average temperature of 15 C and given up at an average temperature of -15 C. The average work that could be produced in the atmosphere is therefore 25 W/m2. The total mechanical energy produced in the atmosphere is 12000 TW (25 W/m2 x 510 x 1012 m2) whereas the total work produced by humans is 2 TW. The quantity of mechanical energy which could be produced in the atmosphere is 6000 times greater than the mechanical energy produced by humans.
The thermodynamic basis of the AVE is consistent with currently accepted understanding of how energy is produced in the atmosphere. Atmospheric scientists call the mechanical energy that would be produced if a unit mass of air were raised reversibly from the bottom to the top of the troposphere Convective Available Potential Energy (CAPE). CAPE during periods of insolation or active convection is typically 1500 J/kg which is equal to the mechanical energy produced by lowering a kilogram of water 150 m. The vortex would transfer the mechanical energy down to the Earth’s surface where it would be captured.
Producing and capturing the work requires that the expansion process be carried out at mechanical equilibrium. Without a mechanism such as a turbo-expander, mechanical energy reverts to heat and is lost. Work is produced when a gas is expanded in a turbine; however, no work is produced when a gas is expanded through a restriction. There must be an expander with a shaft to get the work out of the system. The design of the AVE station compels the expansion to take place at mechanical equilibrium and at a specific location. The quantity of energy which
could be produced by the AVE process is far greater compared to the kinetic energy of horizontal winds captured by conventional horizontal axis wind turbines. The AVE process can provide large quantities of renewable energy, alleviate global warming, and could contribute to meeting the requirements of the Kyoto protocol. The AVE also has the potential of providing precipitation as well as energy.
There is reluctance to attempt to reproduce a phenomenon as destructive as a tornado, but controlled tornadoes could reduce hazards by relieving instability rather than create hazards. A small tornado firmly anchored over a strongly built station would not be a hazard. The AVE could increase the power output of a thermal power plant by 30% by converting 20% of its waste heat to work.
It is estimated that it would be possible to establish a self-sustaining vortex to demonstrate the feasibility of the process with a station 30 m in diameter under ideal conditions. Learning to control large vortices under less than ideal conditions would be a major engineering challenge. Developing the process will require determination, engineering resources; and cooperation between engineers and atmospheric scientists. There will be difficulties to overcome, but they should be no greater than in other large technical enterprises.
Atmospheric Vortex Engine Inventor Louis M. Michaud has worked for a major petrochemical company for the last 24 years and is a senior process control engineer. The vortex engine is a private initiative unrelated to current his current employment. Michaud is interested in difficult to control processes and does not accept that natural processes such as tornadoes cannot be controlled.
Michaud received a B.Eng. (Elect.) from Nova Scotia Technical College; he studied meteorology as a naval officer and previously worked as process control engineer in the aluminum, paper, and nuclear power industries. As the lead process control engineer in an ethylene plant he recently completed the implementation of a highly successful advanced multi-variable model based controller responsible for controlling the seven main product concentrations while maximizing throughput subject to over 100 constraints. Michaud has played leading technical roles in the implementation and upgrade of distributed control systems. He is interested in all aspects of process engineering and is known for coming up with operator friendly process displays and with innovative solutions to field instrumentation problems.
Louis Michaud became aware of the possibility of obtaining energy through atmospheric convection when he realized that more energy is produced by the expansion of a heated gas than is required to compress the same gas after it has been cooled and that this process must surely be responsible for the energy of tornadoes. Michaud self studied meteorology and published nine articles in peer reviewed meteorological or energy journals. A few years ago he undertook the design of the AVE on which a patent application has been filed. Developing the Atmospheric Vortex Engine will require extensive resources. There were earlier related proposals that did not get the support needed to be developed. In 2003, Michaud decided to group relevant information on a web site to raise awareness of the energy production potential of the atmosphere and to ensure that future inventors are aware of prior work. Michaud welcomes feedback, encouragement, and support; if you find the concept interesting please let him know.
Louis Michaud is President of of AVEtec Energy Corporation, he resides at: 1269 Andrew Ct., Sarnia, Ontario, N7V 4H4, Canada, along with his wife Suzanne; he hope that the atmospheric vortex process will contribute to the future energy need of his three children and four grandchildren. He can be reached by telephone at: 519-542-4464, or by email at: lmichaudatvortexengine.ca.
Michaud, L.M. and Segall, N.L.,
The Periodic Reset Controller: A Modification of PID control with Particular Application to Integrating Processes. Presented at the 48th Canadian Chemical Engineering Conference. London, ON, October 4-7, 1998.
Percell, E.S., and Michaud, L.M.,
Building an Effective Operator
Interface for Complex APC Applications.
Presented at the AIChE 2006 Spring National Meeting Ethylene Producer
– Process Control Session Orlando, FL, April 24-27, 2006