It Takes a (Russian) Rocket Scientist to Build A Wind Turbine

windsail1.jpgWhat do Russian rocket scientists know about wind power? A lot, at least according to entrepreneur Rick Halstead, who is creating a wind turbine design company with a group of Russian engineers that previously built submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles. Not exactly the most common resume bullet point, that one.

Halstead was at the UC Berkeley Energy Symposium on Friday, where he discussed his work on small-scale wind turbine design. He’s working with the Makeyev Design Bureau of the Russian State Rocket Center — which he describes as the Russian equivalent of NASA, albeit one where 4,000 PhDs build missiles — along with Lawrence Berkeley National Labs and his own engineering company, Empire Magnetics. Although the group has been collaborating together for four years now, Halstead has just recently been working on incorporating the company (which is currently referred to by its project name, Wind-Sail), and is looking for funding.

windsail2.jpgThe team’s turbines are innovations on a vertical axis structure (the rotor shaft runs vertically). Halstead claims they are many times more efficient, quiet and easy to install than currently available small-scale wind turbines. You can watch videos of Wind-Sail’s turbines at work on their web site; they look a bit like a spinning playground structure. The group also shows pictures of themselves installing one of the turbines, presumably to show how easy that is to do.

Wind-Sail’s turbine can catch the wind in all directions (except up and down), has one main moving part, a low blade speed, and boasts an efficiency rate of between 35 percent and 40 percent. The team used computer modeling and wind tunnel-testing to try to perfect the efficiency of the design.

Halstead said that 20 percent of the cost of a small-scale wind turbine consists of the actual cost of the turbine itself — the other 80 percent covers installation and permits. Halstead is hoping that the costs and length of time needed to install small-scale wind come down dramatically, something he thinks his team’s innovations can help do.

Halstead was presenting as part of UC Berkeley’s Energy Symposium panel on “Carbon-Neutral Technologies at Berkeley Ready to be Commercialized Today.” UC Berkeley has a significant history of helping research move to the commercialization stage, and the venture capitalists listening to the presentation likely took notice of Wind-Sail.

Currently the Russian engineers are funded by the DOE’s Initiative for Proliferation Prevention, which is meant to help Russian scientists and engineers that used to build weapons to find careers in less, um, threatening industries.

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