Here's one for the alternative wind power experiments file - a report from BusinessWeek on an interesting design idea, inspired by the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse of 1940 - Humdinger's Wind Power Alternative.
As an MIT engineering undergraduate visiting the rural fishing village of Petite Anse, Haiti, in 2004, Shawn Frayne hoped to devise a way to convert abundant agricultural waste into cheap fuel. But the budding engineer soon found that the community's mainly poor residents faced an altogether more immediate need. Unconnected to the local power grid, they relied heavily on dirty kerosene lamps, which are not only costly to operate but also unhealthy and dangerous. He decided to devise an alternative—a small, safe, and renewable power generator that could be used to power LED lights and small household electronics, such as radios.
The result is the Windbelt, a miniaturized wind-harvesting power generator that has absolutely nothing in common with the traditional, towering wind turbines that dot the fields and shorelines of developed countries. The simple device was awarded $10,000 in late September as a finalist for the Curry Stone Design Award, a charitable prize that aims to boost design and innovation projects for developing countries. Frayne, now 27, also won a Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Award last fall, earning him a coveted spot on that magazine's annual list of up-and-coming scientists and engineers. Now Frayne and his five-man startup, Humdinger Wind Energy in Honolulu, Hawaii, are working on turning a promising prototype into reality.
"Wind power has pretty much looked the same for the past 80 years," says Frayne over the crackle of a Skype phone call from Xela, Guatemala, where Humdinger is working in rural locations to develop production-ready versions of the Windbelt. After his initial prototypes proved too expensive or inefficient (or both), Frayne took a different tack, eschewing a propeller-type design for an entirely different idea. About the size of a cell phone, the final Windbelt prototype employs a taut membrane that, when air passes over it, vibrates between metal coils to generate electricity. Frayne claims it is the first wind device of any size not to employ turbines.
Indeed, the roots of his innovation are unexpected: Frayne says he was inspired by studying the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington State, which dramatically collapsed in 1940 due to powerful vibrations caused by the wind. The Windbelt harnesses those same dynamics to generate power.