Jan. 3, 2013 at 1:45 PM ET
PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel’s foundation recently invested $300,000 in a start-up company that aims to harness energy from tornadoes. A single twister-generator machine could produce as much energy as a coal-fired power plant without the downside of greenhouse gas emissions.
The Atmospheric Vortex Engine is the brainchild of Louis Michaud, a Canadian engineer who first started talking about the concept in the early 2000s. He’s successfully proven it works with 13-foot diameter version.
The investment money from Thiel “will allow us to carry out well documented development experiments in an academic environment,” Michaud told NBC News in an email. “Such results are required to get financial and power industry support to move to the next stage.”
He is working with Lambton College in Ontario on a 26-foot-wide-by-20-foot-tall outdoor prototype that will produce twisters up to 1.6-feet wide and 164-feet tall.
The twister is created by injecting warm, humid air tangentially into a circular area. This causes the warm air to spin as it rises, forming a small, anchored tornado-like vortex, he explained. The heat source can be solar energy or waste heat. For the prototype, he will use propane burners or steam.
If the energy industry bites on the concept, Michaud envisions a full-sized, 328-foot diameter engine that would generate 200 megawatts – the equivalent of a large, coal-fired power plant. It would cost about $200 million to build and produce electricity a rate of 3 cents per kilowatt hour.
The vortex generated could have a diameter of 100 feet at the base and extend up to 6.2 miles. About 20 turbines around the base station would generate electricity.