A tornado touching down in Kansas. Wind turbines are visible. Michaud's tornadoes would be controlled, emerging from a draft tower and less stormy. Photo © Minerva Studio - Fotolia.com

Warm air meets cold, spurring a rush of rotating air, which gathers speed, churning and whistling one hundred metres into the air. The vortex becomes self-sustaining, feeding itself energy as it whips itself into a deadly frenzy. Now a full tornado, it has sublime destructive ability.

And also the capacity to generate 500MW of power. Well fine, you might say, but didn’t we learn a similar lesson in Jurassic Park about the kinds of things humans should not conjure with the magic wand of science? What kind of insane person is going to encourage a bloodthirsty tornado just for its energy?

Meet Louis Michaud.

Michaud calls his idea the Atmospheric Vortex Engine (AVE). It works by producing and concentrating energy through convection (the movement of molecules through air). Warm air is pumped into the base of a tube, spinning as convection carries it upward. Like a tornado.

An engineer by training, Michaud is entirely philosophical on the subject of what his website refers to as general “reluctance to attempt to reproduce a phenomenon as destructive as a tornado” within the scientific community.

“There is always resistance to new undemonstrated ideas,” he explains. “Leading scientists said that machines heavier than air would never fly. There have been naysayers for most of the inventions that we now use on a daily basis. It is amazing how many people refuse to believe that something is possible until they see it.”

With that in mind, Michaud has set to work building a prototype at Lambton College in Sarnia. The trial AVE will be only 8m high and 6m wide, producing no more than 100W. Enough, more or less, to power a lightbulb.

With a successful test run or two under his belt, however, the engineer envisions full-scale vortices 30m wide and reaching 10km into the sky. These would produce 10MW, rivaling conventional power plants for output. Any danger is negated by the physics of the vortex engines, which can quickly be starved of heat input and shut down.

"Notwithstanding the cost of creating a vortex which would brush the floor of the stratosphere (perhaps $200 million), AVE’s would produce energy at a fraction of the price of any other alternative."

At least a few people’s ears perked up when they heard those kinds of numbers. One of them was PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, whose Thiel Foundation just gave Michaud $300,000 to take his idea and run with it.

Since the donation, Michaud notes a changing of the winds. “People are beginning to turn around. There is less scepticism [since the announcement]. Most people now seem to think that the proposal is feasible. I am hoping that demonstrating the process with the Lambton College prototype will be a turning point.”

Ideally, a working prototype would be enough to convince power plant owners to take a risk and install a full-scale unit on their building. If the AVE has a leg up on the political and scientific interests trying to drag the buoyant technology back to earth, it’s because the entire process can be powered by waste heat.

Power plants, as it happens, produce a great deal of waste heat, so it would seem a good match. All that’s left is to create a controlled tornado. And perhaps feed it the rest of the naysayers.

Stu Campana is an international environmental consultant, currently working with Fern Ridge Landscaping and Eco-Consulting in Milton, Ontario.

Stu Campana is an international environmental consultant, with expertise in water, energy and waste management. He is the Water Team Leader with Ecology Ottawa, has a master’s in Environment and Resource Management and writes the A\J Renewable Energy blog. Follow him on Twitter: @StuCampana.

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