12 April 2012

Harnessing wind energy at high altitude

Research at RMIT University has demonstrated the feasibility of capturing some of the vast energy reserves in the upper atmospheric winds, a significant advance for wind power technology.

Research by Dr Dylan Thorpe, using controlled kites and tethered gliders, provides the potential for the expansion of the use of environmentally friendly power generation technology worldwide.

"The power available in winds at altitudes greater than approximately 5kms is at least 10 times more than at ground level," he said.

"Conceptually, if a wind turbine can be built that negates the need for a tower we can generate renewable energy at a fraction of the current cost."

Dr Thorpe's research shows that by proper control of lightweight gliders attached to a tethering cable extended into the atmosphere, energy can be extracted using a ground based generator by variations in cable tension.

As part of his PhD in the School of Aerospace, Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, Dr Thorpe developed a small-scale prototype system including a novel winching sub-system, where earlier research had shown that conventional winching systems were not suited to this application.

He performed mathematical modelling, parameter identification and subsequent simulation of the prototype system.

He also calculated optimal trajectories for power generation cycles, implemented a heuristic system control and undertook the field testing of the integrated prototype.

The modelling tools he developed will help future researchers to explore further this exciting area of leading-edge energy research.

"Transitioning to a sustainable way of living is an absolute must for humanity and renewable energy is one part of this puzzle," Dr Thorpe said.

"As a mechanical engineer, I felt that I could contribute to this transition in a small way with research into harnessing wind energy at altitude.

"I think this research is important and I would like to see it continue in the future."

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