9 Ingenious Wind Turbine Designs

Hard to believe they work

(clockwise from bottom) Makani Power, Chetwoods Architects, NanoVentSkin.

As the demand for more efficient and more affordable wind power grows, designers are pushing the limits of the technology well beyond the traditional windmill spinning on a grassy hilltop. Often this leads to some pretty wild ideas. Modern turbine design is a testament to the unlimited creativity and ingenuity of today's engineers, but a few of these designs may leave you asking: How exactly is that supposed to work?

Here's our list of the most unusual wind turbine designs that could revolutionize the field. (Text: Bryan Nelson)

Grimshaw Aerogenerator

Grimshaw Architects.

This antennae-looking turbine appears more like a radio beacon for contacting space aliens than a way of generating power from wind. Nevertheless, this unexpected design by Grimshaw Architects has the potential to generate roughly three times more power than a conventional offshore turbine of equivalent size.

The Aerogenerator uses a rotating vertical shaft, as opposed to the horizontal shafts of more familiar windmill designs. This simple conceptual adjustment has a number of advantages. First, it removes the need for the turbine to always be facing into the wind; gusts coming from any direction can cause it to spin. Secondly, it makes the turbine more cost effective to maintain and repair, since the gear boxes are located at ground level rather than at the top of a tower.

Check out a video animation of an offshore Aerogenerator in action here.

Windstalk bladeless turbine

Atelier DNA.

Can there be such a thing as a turbine without blades? That's the idea behind Atelier DNA's "Windstalk" design, a bladeless turbine that looks more like a giant cattail swaying in the wind than it does a windmill. Electricity is generated each time the wind sets the windstalks a-waving. The principal advantages over traditional designs is that the Windstalk produces little noise and is bird-and-bat safe, since there are no spinning parts. It also has a strong aesthetic appeal. You can imagine yourself becoming mesmerized by a field of these turbines dancing in the breeze.

Each stalk is 180 feet high, so a group of these will make an impression. You can investigate more about these turbines at Atelier DNA, and look into more of this laboratory's other innovative designs.

Powerhouse Thinair single-blade turbine

Bill Currie/Twitter.

Now you know there can be a bladeless turbine, but what about a turbine with only one blade? New Zealand's Powerhouse Wind not only proves that a turbine can work with just one blade, but also that such a design can be cheaper and quieter than conventional multi-blade designs.

Since much of the noise from spinning turbine blades comes from the tips and trailing edges, having only one blade automatically reduces noise. Fewer blades also mean more durability. The turbine is geared more toward domestic-scale production, and because of its one-blade design, it’s more affordable for the average consumer. (Co-founder Bill Currie stands by his product in this photo.)

Wind dam

Chetwoods Architects.

You've heard of hydroelectric dams, but have you heard of a wind dam? That's the imaginative idea behind this "sail turbine" design by Chetwoods Architects. This giant sail, which is designed for a windy mountain gorge near Northern Russia’s Lake Ladoga, acts as a dam, funneling the wind through a central turbine. With traditional turbines, more wind passes around the rotors than through them. But this inefficiency is solved if the wind is collected and dammed within a giant sail.

This design also passes the aesthetic test — a difficult task given that its proposed placement is in such a spectacular, unblemished landscape.

Windbelt

Shawn Frayne.

Who needs a turbine when you can generate power from an elastic belt vibrating in the wind? This innovative design comes from Shawn Frayne, who was inspired to create the Windbelt design after watching video of the Tacoma Narrows bridge collapse. Thinking on a smaller scale, Frayne realized that as a belt bowed in the wind, it could generate electricity. The design is ideal for powering small appliances and devices like LED lamps and radios.

Frayne also likens his Windbelt design to that of a violin bow, which speaks to the design's simple yet deeply aesthetic appeal. Since it involves so few components that are also extremely cheap to assemble, it's ideal for small rural communities in developing countries.

Makani Airborne Wind Turbine

Makani Power.

Why put a turbine on the ground when you can make it airborne? This inventive design looks more like a top-secret Air Force plane than a wind turbine. Designed by Makani Power, the Airborne Wind Turbine has the advantage of being able to collect wind at higher altitudes. Each propeller makes about 7.5 kilowatts of power, which is sent back down to Earth via a cable.

The turbine can be easily launched from land or from a platform out at sea. A medley of videos featuring the flying turbine in flight, and highlighting its specs, can be found at the Makani Power website.

Nano Vent-Skin

Nano Vent-Skin.

When it comes to meeting large-scale wind energy demands, most people think big. Designer Agustin Otegui, on the other hand, thinks small — nano small. He has come up with the ingenious idea of creating a fabric-like "skin" made of thousands of tiny interwoven micro-turbines. As wind blows across the surface of this "skin," the mini-turbines spin. Collectively they have the power to collect a lot of energy.

The biggest advantage to this design is that these turbines can be placed almost anywhere: on the surface of buildings, as lining for gusty highway tunnels, even on the shafts of larger traditional wind turbines.

You can read more, and see more images, at Otegui's Nano Vent-Skin blog.

Wind Harvester

Wind Power Innovations.

Looking at this device resembling a teeter-totter for giants, you may wonder how it is meant to generate power from wind. Called the "Wind Harvester" and invented by Heath Evdemon — also the founder of Wind Power Innovations — this bizarre looking turbine is specially designed to generate power from subtle winds that aren't strong enough to turn traditional turbines.

The system is based on reciprocating motion. When wind catches the device's airfoil, it rises until it reaches its peak, then the blade alters its angle and it teeters the other way. Not only does it work in low wind speeds, it is virtually silent as it rocks up and down. The low-impact motion of the Wind Harvester also makes it ideal for environmentally sensitive areas.

Laddermill project

Delft University of Technology.

This innovative design by researchers at Delft University in The Netherlands makes use of a string of tethered "kiteplanes" that soar in the high-altitude winds of the jet stream. Essentially, the aerodynamics of the planes makes them fly in a continuous loop, which turns an electrical generator on the ground. The principle advantage of this "Laddermill" design is that it can capture the consistent and high-speed winds that exist at over 30,000 feet.