This is an artist's rendition of an artificial tornado. Theoretically, such a system could generate enough electricity to power a city. Credit: Colin Anderson/Blend Images/Corbis

By Dan Levitan, IEEE Spectrum

Tornados are very energetic. But of course, they are far too unpredictable and uncontrollable to actually make use of that energy. Right?

Peter Thiel, billionaire founder of PayPal and early Facebook funder, says wrong. Thiel's foundation, through its Breakout Labs fund, awarded US $300,000 to a company called AVEtec, based in Canada, to work on designs and prototypes for an "atmospheric vortex engine."

The AVE involves a circular chamber into which warm air is introduced at tangential angles, creating a rising vortex controlled by colder air above the chamber (mini-prototype pictured blow). Turbines at the base will spin thanks to the artificial tornado, generating energy. According to AVEtec,a 200-meter wide version of this could generate 200 megawatts of energy at a cost of only $0.03 per kilowatt-hour, below even the cheapest forms of power we have now.

In a press release from Breakout Labs, AVEtec founder Louis Michaud said: "The power in a tornado is undisputed. My work has established the principles by which we can control and exploit that power to provide clean energy on an unprecedented scale. With the funding from Breakout Labs, we are building a prototype in partnership with Lambton College to demonstrate the feasibility and the safety of the atmospheric vortex engine."

WIDE ANGLE: Tornadoes

Turbines at the base spin because of the artificial tornado. Credit: AVEtech

The best part of this idea — other than the fact that it is a controlled tornado used to generate electricity, is that the heat source for the warm air could be standard fossil fuel power plants. (The chamber for the AVE could just be a power plant cooling tower.) Coal and natural gas plants don't operate at particularly high efficiencies, with much of the power in the fuel source lost as waste heat; one study from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory found that around 68 percent of all the energy involved with electricity generation in 2011 ended up as "rejected energy." Aside from power plant waste heat, the tornado could also be fed with warm water or solar power.

Thiel's foundation's backing suggests we might actually see a prototype built, but let's not get ahead of ourselves here. Michaud's idea has been floating around for some time now, and hasn't yet gotten off the ground; this very publication included it in a "Powered By Crazy" feature in 2010. This is the second such bit of insanity, pulling uranium from seawater being the other, that has gone from crazy to maybe just in the last few months. But even AVEtec's "endorsements" page doesn't feature too many "Eureka!" type explosions; as was noted in the 2010 article, the Canadian Academy of Engineering merely says the concept "does not defy known physics."

Following the laws of nature is a good first step, but let's see if Thiel's money, which, at $300K, is a homeopathic amount, for a billionaire, can actually yield a tame, electricity-generating tornado.

This article originally appeared on IEEE Spectrum as Tornado Power: Breakout Labs Funds Research Into Energy-Generating Vortex

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