A Whale of Design: WhalePower Bumps into Engineering Innovation

Posted on 24. Aug, 2011 by in Business & Policy, Clean Tech, Products

While writing a story about energy solutions for Opportunity Green Insights, I came across the groundbreaking work of Canada’s WhalePower: bringing new, high efficiency, tubercled airfoil designs to the marketplace. Stephen Dewar, VP of Business Affairs and Director of R&D, elaborates on their inspiration, discoveries, and practical applications in this exclusive, in-depth interview.

OG: First off, why put bumps (tubercles) on a wing?

SD: Tubercled airfoils improve lift, reduce drag, virtually eliminate stall and operate nearly silently. The new airfoils outperform their competition using fewer blades, generating 25 % more airflow while using 25 % less electricity.

Turbine blade retrofitted with tubercles (Credit: WhalePower)

OG: That’s a significant difference. What questions were you asking that prompted you to mimic biological systems?

SD: WhalePower President, Dr. Frank E. Fish, examined a humpback whale sculpture and issued a fatefully inaccurate observation: “The sculptor put the bumps on the wrong side of the flipper.” The shopkeeper insisted that the artist sculpted true to life.

Frank was just the person to ask “what purpose do they serve?” He runs the Liquid Life Lab at West Chester University and happens to be one of the world’s leading experts on the biomechanics of how animals swim.

He spent years studying the flippers and realized that these bumps [on the leading edge] dramatically enhanced the whale’s ability to maneuver quickly. Frank eventually published a paper outlining his thoughts on the matter before he engaged Dr. Phillip Watts to help with some of the fluid dynamics analysis. Together they filed for and received a patent in 2002.

Frank then collaborated with Dr. Laurens E. Howle, of Duke University, one of the leading authorities on fluid dynamics. They enlisted the help of two Navy engineers and the Naval Academy’s Wind Tunnel and with the support of the Academy’s research funds and the National Research Council, experimentally compared an unmodified airfoil to one with the same basic shape and surface area but with a tubercled leading edge. Their results were published in the Physics of Fluids (and Science, Scientific American, Science News , and The Journal of Experimental Biology).

Credit: http://biomimetic-architecture.com/2009/09/10/swim-like-a-whale/

WhalePower President, Dr. Frank Fish

OG: Wow, serendipity! What breakthroughs have been made since?

SD: The 16 degree stall-angle found in the first wind tunnel experiment has been enhanced to produce airfoils that don’t fully stall until they reach an astounding 31 degrees – far above anything previously known. Unlike nearly every other airfoil which can stall violently and even damage the machines they’re employed on, tubercle airfoils always stall gradually. The blades also increased lift while reducing drag; unheard of until that time.

OG: That is remarkable. What impact do you think this will have?

SD: Tubercled blades are a whole new kind of airfoil. Before, everyone assumed blades needed to have a smooth leading edge. Our discovery has made its way into the latest textbooks on fluid dynamics.

Our first product, the Envira-North Altra-Air Fan, is now the best, high volume, low speed, industrial fan on the market. We expect to make a wave with our efficient and quiet cooling fans for laptops and PCs. Computers consume staggering amounts of energy and most of that goes to run fans which are usually on 24 hours a day.

Envira-North Altra-Air Fan (Credit: WhalePower)

We are planning to develop small-scale wind-turbines in the next 2 years and larger models after that. We also plan to penetrate the retrofit-turbine-blade market; they need to be replaced every 5 to 10 years. Inexpensively produced turbercled blades outlast their competitors because they do not [suddenly] stall – a major factor in rapid breakdown of turbine blades and the machine they are attached to.

We’ll tackle as many applications as possible; you’ll see tubercled blades in everything from your car engine to ceiling fan to laptop.

Prototype computer fan (Credit: WhalePower)

OG: Do you think biomimicry will make further inroads into the world of engineering?

SD: Biomimicry will doubtless make further inroads. Nature has so much to teach us, and the closer we look, the more we are blown away by what we find at work. There are so many instances where we can mimic a natural design or phenomena to enhance technology and quality of life, why stop trying?

OG: No doubt. Are you facing any obstacles to realizing applications?

SD: With respect to wind turbines, taking a product from idea to development to commercialized product is a big and expensive job; several years to design and then more to get blades certified. Testing can be incredibly expensive and time consuming.

The instability of the wind industry has been a major obstacle; it’s a very tough market to enter, thoroughly rattled by the recession. When the recession hit full swing, new sources of commercial credit (effectively, business mortgages) disappeared altogether. There was no way to finance the fields. Installation of new farms fell off dramatically.

This affected many of the key producers. These companies were in no position to invest. They did express a great deal of interest in our innovation at the time, and we were even in negotiations for licensing and development, but that disappeared.

Lately we have seen a partial rebound, but the credit issue is still at hand and companies are becoming even more wary of a double dip recession or even a depression.

OG: Are there any business lessons you have learned that you can share?

SD: Tubercle technology is a very complicated design enhancement. It goes far beyond adding some bumps. It is an entirely new type of flow management. Even when a project is going well, it can take several versions of a design for a new blade and several physical prototypes before the results we aim for are achieved. All of this can be hindered when dealing with a licensee that may want to cut corners on the design side in the hopes of speeding up the development process. What can result from hasty planning or the use of inexpensive materials stands true in any context – less than desirable products.

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