Using Software to Support Nature-Driven Innovation in Wind Turbine Design

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Researchers are using insights from nature to design better wind turbines, and modern software can aid in data-gathering and filtering. Image Credit: Flickr user Scott Mels

 

 

In recent years, wind energy has established itself as one of the most promising renewable technologies. It has been hailed by both environmental activists and economic experts as one of the best ways to simultaneously combat climate change and boost the economy. However, there are still barriers to the widespread adoption of wind energy. For example, many people like the idea of wind energy, but they worry about the excess noise and aesthetic disruptions that are associated with wind turbines. There is also the question of whether or not wind turbines are capturing enough energy to be economically viable in less-windy locations. As alternative energy researchers seek to solve these problems, many are turning to nature for inspiration. Modern data-gathering and filtering software can assist scientists who are looking to engineer new wind turbines with designs based on insights from the natural world.

Using Owls’ Wings to Suppress Wind Turbine Noise

One of the most common complaints of residents who live near wind turbines is the noise. Every time the wind blows, the sound of blades buffeting the air can be highly disruptive, especially in rural areas where people are accustomed to silence. In July 2017, a group of researchers from China and Japan published an article in the journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics that offers a solution: turbine blades based on the features of owls’ wings.

It was previously known that owls’ wings have a variety of unique features, including leading-edge serrations, trailing-end fringes, and velvet-like surfaces. Using a mathematical model, the scientists evaluated how each of these features affected the aerodynamic forces of flight, as well as the owl’s ability to fly silently.1 They found that leading-edge serrations played an outsized role in both flight dynamics and noise reduction. Specifically, their model revealed that both parameters can be optimized when the angle of the serrations is between 15 and 20 degrees.2

The researchers hope to use their findings to design new wind turbine rotors that have leading-edge serrations at ideal angles, which will simultaneously reduce noise and improve the efficiency of existing wind turbine technology. They also suggest that rotors inspired by owls’ wings could also facilitate acoustic control in other noise-causing, rotor-based technologies, like aircraft and multi-rotor drones.

Other Nature-Inspired Wind Turbine Design Innovations

The recently published study on owl wing-based wind turbine rotors represents a new opening in wind turbine technology development, but it is far from the only time that nature has inspired innovation in the field. In 2008, researchers at Harvard University built on the observation that the bumps on the leading edge of a humpback whale’s flippers contribute to the animal’s remarkable agility in the water. Using a mathematical model, they were able to make the theoretical case that adding bumps to wind turbine blades could enable them to capture more energy.3

In 2015, an entrepreneur in Britain designed a wind turbine that addresses the problem of generating energy on less-windy days, claiming to have been inspired by leaves blowing around on the sidewalk, even when there was no sustained breeze. The design involves a steel “trunk” with plastic “leaves” that are designed to capture energy at low wind speeds. The turbines are also aesthetically appealing and relatively quiet, which makes them particularly well-suited to urban environments.4

Using Software to Gather Information for Wind Turbine Design Projects

When researchers seek to use nature-inspired innovations to design wind turbines, it is necessary to integrate data from a wide range of diverse sources. For example, the researchers who proposed the owl wing-based turbine blades consulted the literature on both wind turbine engineering and owl physiology. They also combined multiple analytical techniques from physics when creating their mathematical model.

For interdisciplinary research efforts like this one, it can be a major challenge to collect and synthesize the relevant data. However, with today’s software, it is possible for researchers to gather data from a wide range of databases and refine results based on the specific requirements of the project. As a result, scientists who are looking to use owl wings or whale flippers for wind turbine design inspiration can filter database queries so that they don’t have to browse through endless pages of irrelevant information on owl hunting patterns and whale conservation. That can significantly reduce the amount of time and resources that go into background research.

Once the relevant data has been located, modern software also allows researchers to visualize it in detail and combine it with other findings in order to analyze it in a relevant context. This is ideal for projects that bring together fields as diverse as wildlife biology, wind energy technology, and aerodynamics.

BIOVIA Insight is an advanced software solution that supports data gathering, filtering, and visualization. For scientists conducting interdisciplinary research, it can significantly improve research efficiency and productivity. Contact us today to learn more about all of our products!

  1. “Owls’ wings could hold the key to beating wind turbine noise,” July 4, 2017, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/07/170704093621.htm
  2. “Owl-inspired leading-edge serrations play a crucial role in aerodynamic force production and sound suppression,” July 4, 2017, http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-3190/aa7013/meta;jsessionid=D4843F26641B2636DD749FDDE93A92FA.c3.iopscience.cld.iop.org
  3. “Whale-inspired wind turbines,” March 6, 2008, https://www.technologyreview.com/s/409710/whale-inspired-wind-turbines/
  4. “Wind energy innovation inspired nature,” June 2, 2015, http://www.energysavingtrust.org.uk/blog/wind-energy-innovation-inspired-nature