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Peter Thiel funds tornado power: seriously

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Peter Thiel, famous for co-founding PayPal (s ebay) and being an early investor in Facebook (s fb), has put a small grant of $300,000 into a Canadian inventor who has spent years working on the idea of harnessing man-made tornadoes to produce power. The funding was made through Thiel’s Breakout Labs, which is part of the Thiel Foundation and which gives small rounds of funding for cutting-edge, early-stage science and technology research ideas.

The entrepreneur behind tornado power is Louis Michaud, who is a Canadian engineer that has spent years “trying to be taken seriously,” as Toronto Star reporter Tyler Hamilton describes him (he profiled Michaud in his book Mad Like Tesla). Michaud’s startup is called AVEtec and his technology is called the Atmospheric Vortex Engine (AVE). Breakout Labs describes the technology as:

In his design, warm or humid air is introduced into a circular station, where it takes the form of a rising vortex, i.e. a controlled tornado. The temperature difference between this heated air and the atmosphere above it supports the vortex and drives multiple turbines. The vortex can be shut down at any time by turning off the source of warm air.


AVEtec says vortex-power can deliver energy that is carbon emissions-free, and super cheap at 3 cents per kilowatt hour (coal can be anywhere from 4 to 5 cents per kwh, and it’s got some of the highest carbon emissions).

The problem is that the tornado power has to be created in a large power plant, and that has yet to be built and tested at scale. The column of the tornado in a commercial-size plant would be 130 feet tall. Reporter Hamilton says Michaud’s plan eventually is to create tornadoes using waste heat from power plant or industrial factory and then harness those vortexes.

AVEtec will work with Lambton College in Ontario to build and study a prototype using the funding from Breakout Labs. Breakout Labs has also funded Modern Meadow, which combines in-vitro meat with 3D printing.

Thiel clearly has an interest in backing early stage research around new ways to use resources from energy to food to water. Despite that he was widely quoted as saying cleantech has been a disaster, he’s taking more of an ARPA-E style approach for cleantech through Breakout Labs. Thiel has also put money into LightSail Energy, a startup that makes a next-generation compressed air energy storage technology.

14 Responses to “Peter Thiel funds tornado power: seriously”

  1. So if you’re harvesting the waste heat, why use it to generate a vortex? By doing so you’re automatically generating frictional losses…..why not just use the heat directly? This doesn’t make any sense to me

    • Joshua Mark

      And how do you propose to “use the heat directly”? Generating electricity from heat on a commercial level means converting water to steam and passing it though a turbine. Waste heat is from the condensation after boiling. Not useful for a steam turbine but good for something like this.

      This may make sense for a nuclear plant but not coal. The energy removed from the condensate would just need to be put back in by the reactor or the coal powered boilers. The same goes for geothermal.

    • John Allison

      Seems like the kicker is in “using waste heat from power plant or industrial factory”. Their hope is they can capture energy from waste heat that’s currently going unused.

      If they were heating up air themselves to power a vortex, then that seems unlikely to generate a net positive result.

    • There’s a difference in temperature between ground-level air and air higher in the atmosphere. This temperature gradient is where natural tornadoes get their energy from, too.