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El Cóndor Pasa – From bird wings to wind turbines?

Imagine soaring high above the Andes, riding the thermals without a flap of your wings for hundreds of miles — this is the daily journey of the Andean condor, the world’s largest flying bird. With wings stretching up to almost four meters, this impressive glider has inspired a significant technological breakthrough in wind energy.

Researchers at the University of Alberta’s Department of Mechanical Engineering have taken a cue from the condor’s seamless flight. Their study, published in the journal Energy, introduces a novel way to enhance wind turbine efficiency, drawing directly from the aerodynamics of the condor’s wings. The team collaborated with Biome Renewables, a company that uses nature’s designs to boost clean energy technologies, to create and test a winglet (a small fin placed on the end of a wing) that mimics the condor’s wingtips.

In birds, winglets help reduce the drag and turbulence caused by air curling up over the tips of the wings. When applied to wind turbine blades, these winglets perform a similar function. They cut down the air vortices that form at the blades’ tips, which are major culprits in energy loss and even structural wear and tear over time.

Source: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.energy.2024.130561
Source: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.energy.2024.130561

Biome’s design for the winglet is impressive. It’s over five meters long and specifically shaped to be added onto a turbine’s blade tips. The Alberta team’s simulations showed that adding these winglets to turbines could boost their power output by 10%. This boost is attributed directly to the aerodynamic benefits introduced by the winglets.

Encouraged by these positive outcomes, the researchers are continuing their work, using even more sophisticated models to refine the winglet design further. This could lead to greater standardization of the technology in the wind energy sector, potentially transforming how turbines are designed worldwide.

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