Tornado Power!

Manitoba Tornado

The things I find on the Internet.

We went to Ikea, yesterday. It was a major outing that pushed forward our somewhat unexpected renovation of our kitchen. More on that later. Anyway, as we came back, we noticed some dark skies. And then the rain began to fall. As we left the hallway, we drove through some minor flooding, and traffic slowed to a crawl. I later heard that a tornado had touched down north of Waterloo Region.

Intriguingly, when I checked my readership statistics this morning, I noticed that twice as many people as normal had visited my site. A large number of them were visiting this page, while others were looking here. From this I have to conclude that people were searching for images of funnel clouds that may have been spotted around Toronto during the storm. Things must have gotten pretty scary over there, although Erin’s reaction was mostly just to shrug. She’s seen much worse.

Anyway, as I explored this hunch, I came upon this page, whose image of a tornado and whose mention of Toronto also scored high on the search results for “Toronto Tornado”. It describes an ambitious plan to use the cyclonic winds of a tornado to generate power. Here’s a quote, interspaced with my reactions as I first read it:

Michaud envisions building a large cylindrical building 200 metres in diameter and about 50 meters high, and this structure would have an open top.

So far so good.

Heated waste water from a power plant that would normally go to a cooling tower would instead be diverted to the vortex building and into 10 or more strategically located cooling cells, where fans would blow so the air could pick up the heat energy from the water. The hot air from the 10+ intake ducts are then pushed at an angle into the cylindrical building, where you see the beginnings of a whirlwind. As the hot air rises it gathers energy and creates a vortex that reaches higher and higher into the atmosphere.

And this is easy to visualize. It’s quite easy to create a vortex under controlled conditions, such as inside a building. These smoke tornadoes are awesome sights to behold.

At a certain point the fans pushing the hot air into the vortex are turned off. The vortex, now hungry for more heated air, begins to suck in the air on its own. Suddenly, what were fans now become turbines that spin as the air is drawn in. The turbines are connected to generators that produce clean electricity as long as a constant source of waste heat is provided to feed the vortex,

Interesting idea. Again, I can visualize it. It takes a small amount of energy to get the water in your kitchen sink to swirl as it goes down the drain, and the vortex action seems to feed back on itself, generating considerable energy return.

which at this point is a full-fledged tornado stretching into the troposphere—

(blink!) I’m sorry; what was that?

into the troposphere

This is an actual, frakken real tornado? Stretching into the sky?! The power might be clean in terms of the generation of carbon dioxide, but imagine for a moment having this power plant as a neighbour. And what about birds? Planes? The perils of constantly looking out your window and seeing this tornado stretching over your city?

Now, the obvious questions — Noise? Safety? Control? Birds? Airplanes? Fear?

Yeah, like I was saying!

Michaud admits these are challenges, not technical ones, but public opinion challenges.


Actually, at this point, I’m frozen in terror at the visual of a tornado power plant adding a spiralling column of air to a city’s skyline, and frozen in the thought of how incredibly awesome this visual could be. You can’t deny that Michaud is a visionary:

Michaud says his vortex engines could help us directly manage climate change. He says there’s no reason hundreds of his vortex engines couldn’t be stationed in the ocean along the equator, where ocean water is warm enough to provide energy for creating a tornado. Why do this? Well, the greenhouse effect prevents heat that hits the earth’s surface from radiating back into space, so Michaud argues that his vortex network would act like air conditioners that suck the hot air high into the atmosphere where the heat can more easily escape.

And suddenly I’m reminded of the ring of space elevators along the equator as visualized by Arthur C. Clark at the end of his book 2061, except as columns of air instead of columns of diamond-coated concrete. Talk about changing the world.

But, of course, Michaud’s idea is probably impractical. Check out the date of the post: July 21, 2007. I hadn’t heard of Michaud until this date. However, Michaud’s company has a website, which lists news articles up to the end of 2008, so I guess you never know.

Good luck, Michaud!

Anyway, what was this “unexpected” renovation of the kitchen we’re embarking on? Well, for a variety of reasons (like the fact that Erin sold the audio rights to her book, Plain Kate, we’ve decided that the time has come to replace our refrigerator. Though it still works, it’s original to the house and is, shall we say, harvest gold. It could conk out tomorrow, and it’s probably adding hundreds to our annual energy bill. But, of course, if we’re replacing the refrigerator, we might as well replace the flooring it’s sitting on, and, the rest of the aging kitchen floor. And our countertops, also original to the house, could do with replacing. And if you’re replacing the countertops, why not the lower cabinets? And if the lower cabinets go, what about the upper cabinets…

You see what I mean? It’s amazing how home renovations can spiral out of control, but we’re working hard to limit the changes to just the kitchen. And Ikea proved to offer an excellent service where you could design your kitchen on their computers, see it in 3-D, and then have them install it for you.

That’s worth paying for. On Home and Garden Television, there was a show which showed average people trying to renovate their homes and the disasters they encountered on the way. Watching this, I had to wonder just how it was the camera crew chose their subjects? I mean, they show the renovation from start to finish, and it’s shown as it happens. How do the producers know that things are going to go wrong? I can imagine a camera crew parked in front of Home Depot, canvassing passers by:

“So, let’s see if I have this straight: you’re a kindergarten teacher, and he’s an accountant, and you’ve just rented this gigantic industrial sander which you don’t know how to use? Perfect! Can we come home with you?”

This woman would be another candidate.

I can see us walking out of Ikea with our cart laden with boxes, only to have a camera crew approach us. “Back!” I’d shout. “Back, you vampires! You bring bad luck!”

So, yeah, we’re paying to have the cabinets professionally installed.

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