Inspired by tornadoes?
We can't box up tornadoes and hurricanes. But can we recreate them and harness their energy at a smaller scale instead?
For tornadoes, it might be possible down the road. Tornadoes gather strength through forcefully tunneling warm, low-pressure air near the ground into high-energy thunderclouds. Most of this energy spirals through the storm's vortex, which erratically lumbers through the landscape. Rather than recreating a full-blown tornado, think of it as making conditions ripe for a vortex. You can even observe a vortex at home by watching water drain in a bathtub -- it's the same idea.
These storms have inspired engineers to want to create controlled vortices, the powerful spirals of energy at the heart of tornadoes (and bathtubs!). For example, the Atmospheric Vortex Engine, an idea thought up by a small engineering team, would consist of a 328-foot (100-meter) tall, chimneylike structure, where heat is introduced at its base. By adding steam, engineers may be able to encourage warm air to condense into water vapor that releases heat and energy. The goal is to form a vortex, which could be converted to energy by turbines placed near the top of the structure, according to the project's Web site.
But it's been difficult replicating tornadoes in such a controlled environment. Since energy cannot be created or destroyed, scientists would have to place an equal -- if not greater -- amount of energy into the system to yield results that would amount to usable electricity. Also, it's difficult to create realistic tornado conditions. Wind speeds in tornadoes can reach up to 300 mph (482 kph), according to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency. Simulating real-life tornado conditions would require taller structures, too.
To harness energy from tornadoes and hurricanes, there's a lot of innovative work to be done, said Landsea. Until technology catches up to our imaginations, taming high-energy storms in nature will be the thing of the future.