Dust devils are swirling micro-tornadoes that pop up regularly in dry, warm climates or during the summertime. Researchers say they have figured out how to tame the tiny twisters and extract their energy using a rotating turbine blade.
A team at Georgia Tech has built a small demonstration prototype about three feet wide. It looks like the inside of an aircraft engine rotor turned on its side. Warm air flows in through a series of vanes that force the buoyant ground-heated air to rotate as it rises.
This spinning creates a powerful vortex, or "dust devil," according to Ari Glezer, the principal investigator and professor of mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech. As the column of air rises, it draws in more hot air to keep going.
Here's a video of a laboratory-created dust devil.
And the real thing at a baseball field in Indiana.
"We trigger a vortex artificially," Glezer said. "The idea is to ultimately hook it up to the electric grid."
Glezer's project recently was awarded $3.7 million from the Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency -- Energy (ARPA-E). The Solar Vortex fits with the goals of ARPA-E to find high-risk, high-reward projects, according to program director Bryan Willson.