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October 4, 2004
From Russia, with . . . Wind Power

In October, Glen Dahlbacka and Joseph Rasson of the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory will travel to a sprawling rocket-manufacturing facility located in the Ural Mountains of southern Russia. They will meet a group of engineers who've honed their prodigious skills developing submarine-launched ballistic missiles. And after passing through a gauntlet of security checks, they'll see their latest work: small wind turbines that may someday provide electricity to the nomads of Mongolia, or the citizens of Berkeley.

Glen Dahlbacka with renditions of wind turbines (photo Roy Kaltschmidt)

This quintessential swords-to-plowshares story is the product of DOE's Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention (IPP) program, which fosters partnerships between national laboratories, former Soviet weapons scientists, and U.S. companies. Its goal is to diminish the chance of weapons proliferation by providing scientists with peaceful enterprises and self-sustaining employment. As director of Berkeley Lab's IPP program, Dahlbacka oversees several such collaborations, and he's traveled to Russia many times, but this trip holds special promise.

"Knowing our nation's need for renewable energy, the idea of wind turbines rang a bell with me," says Dahlbacka, a member of the Lab's Technology Transfer Department. "It's a perfect project with a genuine and growing market."

The collaboration started last year when Berkeley Lab teamed up with the Makeyev State Rocket Center near Miass, Russia, and Empire Magnetics of Rohnert Park, California, to develop vertical-axis wind turbines, so named because the blades revolve around a vertical axle, like an eggbeater. The small-scale windmills are designed to be used anywhere power lines don't reach, such as remote ranches and villages. They can also be placed on top of buildings to supplement the existing power supply.

Artist's rendition of a three-kilowatt wind turbine

When Dahlbacka and Rasson travel to the State Rocket Center, they'll inspect a three-kilowatt prototype that stands almost thirty feet tall. They'll also inspect a smaller one-kilowatt turbine that can be easily loaded inside a car or strapped onto a horse — perfect for Mongolian nomads.

"In order to meet the Russian market, the third-world market, and the U.S. market, we had to develop something that people can set and forget," says Dahlbacka. "It shouldn't require a lot of maintenance and it should be easily manufactured."

The prototypes mark the first-year milestone of a two-year, $1 million project funded by DOE, with about $150,000 going to Berkeley Lab and about $350,000 going to the Russian site each year. Here at the Lab, Rasson of the Engineering Division is the project manager. His team provides the collaboration with management, engineering and analysis support.

"Our role is to coordinate the project between the scientists in Russia and Empire Magnetics," says Rasson. "We make sure that DOE's stake in the project is met, meaning the funding is appropriated correctly and the turbines meet DOE's expectations."

Marketability is one such requirement. To ensure the turbines will sell, Ryan Wiser of Berkeley Lab's Environmental Energy Technologies Division conducted a cost-benefit analysis that takes into account state incentives and performance parameters, and identifies the price targets needed for a turbine to achieve commercial success in the U.S. This study helped shape the prototypes' power and cost targets.

Another player is Empire Magnetics, which originally approached Dahlbacka with the idea. It will provide the alternators to be used with the windmills. But the bulk of the work occurs in Russia, where 100 scientists have contributed to the turbines so far. Experts in structural design, electronics, aerodynamics, even helicopter blades, all have lent a hand. Their techniques are state-of-the-art. To design the vertical axis airfoil, which is essentially a wing, the researchers developed a computational simulation followed by hydro and aerodynamic testing.

"This has been a world class approach, and it is one of the largest vertical axis design efforts in the world," says Dahlbacka.

Artist's rendition of a 30-kilowatt wind turbine

Several prototypes will be delivered to the U.S. in January for field tests. The City of Berkeley has offered its marina as a test site, and perhaps one or two will sprout up at Berkeley Lab. Further in the future, the team hopes to build a 30-kilowatt turbine and a 100-kilowatt turbine, a design that rivals the power offered by the more conventional horizontal axis windmills that dot the Altamont Pass. Although U.S. windmill designers have traditionally favored horizontal turbines because they are more efficient (per unit area swept) than vertical axis turbines, refinements in vertical axis technology are closing this efficiency gap, and conventional windmills come with drawbacks such as noise and their proclivity to kill birds.

Long-term success is also an important component of the IPP program, and this means getting the technology on the international market. Business prospects already appear rosy in Russia, where the scientists have received 450 orders without advertising. Here in the U.S., three Russian scientists recently visited Berkeley Lab to showcase the windmills and help Empire Magnetics, which will introduce the turbines to the domestic market, attract investors. Ultimately, the better the turbines sell, the less likely the Russian scientists are to revert to their old trade.

"They have conducted a lot of rocket technology research, and as such they are an ideal group to provide alternative energy solutions to and engage in the international economy," says Dahlbacka.

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