When engineers hoisted a giant, 60-foot experimental dome on top of a wind turbine near Tehachapi, California in May, people starting pulling over at the side of the road to take pictures.
“It’s in the desert, and it looks a little bit like a UFO,” says Mike Bowman, who leads sustainable energy advanced technology at GE Global Research.
The company is testing the new 60-foot diameter dome–also variously compared to a massive clown nose or Captain America’s shield–as a way to help turbines produce more power. It works by helping redirect wind energy that would otherwise be lost.
“On a wind turbine, the center part doesn’t turn–it’s a big box and doesn’t do anything,” says Bowman. “It really has no ability to convert the wind into useful energy.” The new attachment turns, and redirects wind to the widest part of the blades, where they can make the most use of it.
Engineers first started working on the design two years ago, when the head of the research team challenged the designers to come up with a way for wind turbines to harvest more wind. After hacking together a model from a Styrofoam ball, a toothpick, and a mini-wind turbine, the team calculated that it would be possible to capture 3% more energy with the attachment.
Though 3% may not sound like much, it makes a difference on a 1.7 megawatt tower. “When you start looking at how many turbines are on a wind farm–maybe 100–and adding up percentages on each one, it builds to a big number,” Bowman says.
The massive prototype is designed to attach to a 450-foot tall turbine that snaps together, Lego-style, so it can more easily be transported to the remote, windy areas that work best for wind farms. Because the dome makes it possible for blades to get wider, but not longer, it also helps save space in transportation.
Over the next four months, the research team will study the turbine via a network of sensors, and then decide whether it can be adapted into something that could also be added to other types of wind turbines. “The product most likely won’t look like what we’re testing today,” says Bowman.
And wind turbine design will keep evolving. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity for wind,” he says. “I think we’re just at the beginning of it.”