Navigant Research Blog

Evaluating New Frontiers in Wind Energy: Saying Goodbye to Blades, Part 2

Adam Wilson — January 13, 2017

Tablet Device with StatisticsThis blog is the second part in a continuing series examining new and innovative technologies in the wind energy industry.

The first blog in this series discussed the Vortex Bladeless wind turbine. The Spanish company behind the Vortex has been successful in securing funding, but it has yet to move out of the R&D phase and still has a long road ahead before actual orders are placed. In addition to the oscillating tower design, wind turbine engineers have explored other concepts that can generate electricity from wind. One particular company, Saphon Energy out of Tunisia, has come up with a design inspired from ancient sailboats and movements of fish and birds. The turbine is unique, and the small startup has big aspirations for how its machine could revolutionize the industry.

The Saphonian does not work in the same manner as a typical wind turbine—in fact, the company does not define it as a wind turbine at all. The system works with a disk that moves around in a figure eight motion driven by the wind. While specific details of the exact process for how exactly the unit uses this mechanical motion to generate electrical energy have not been disclosed by the company, it is believed that the machine uses a system of hydraulic cylinders and fluids to essentially run a hydraulic pump backwards in order to extract energy from wind.

Saphon Energy’s Saphonian

Saphon Energy

(Source: Saphon Energy)

Excitement and Skepticism

Saphon Energy has made several claims with its machine which, if true, would make it a very desirable option for developers interested in distributed wind. So the question is, if these claims are true, why hasn’t the Saphonian made bigger noise in the wind energy industry? Saphon says its wind system can generate twice as much energy as a conventional wind turbine with the same swept area while also boasting an efficiency of 70%. Because the Saphonian is not classified as a turbine, it is not subject to the Betz Limit, which says that a turbine can convert no more than 59% of the kinetic wind energy into electrical energy. These claims need to be shown in real-world applications before they can be taken seriously. Additionally, the figure eight motion would likely cause significant stress on the rotor system and quickly lead to material fatigue. The only explanation currently offered by the company is a vague state-of-the-art design statement that does not disclose how the machine counters mechanical stress. As of now, the system is only designed for power outputs of 20 kW to 50 kW. Developing a machine that is scalable up to commercial-scale size of 3 MW or more while maintaining a competitive cost will prove to be a significant challenge.

While skepticism for the Saphonian should be expected, there’s still reason for optimism for the young company to eventually break into the market. Microsoft signed an alliance with the Saphon Energy in 2014 as part of its 4Afrika initiative. The company has also been the recipient of several awards, including the 2015 Gulfstream Navigator Award. The company also has reportedly signed an agreement to make a 1 MW test site in India, where it will install 50 of its 20 kW machines by 2018. An agreement to actually install the machines is a major first step for a small wind startup like Saphon, and while news has been relatively quiet for the company in recent months, there’s reason to believe the company has the opportunity to make a dent in the global wind market. Though a substantial uphill climb remains, this innovative startup is worth committing to memory for the time being.

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