With no turbine, the Windbelt can produce energy at a cost-per-watt that’s significantly lower than conventional devices. In 2007, Frayne received a Breakthrough Award from Popular Mechanics for the device. He and his collaborators have since improved the Windbelt to a point where they can produce wind power for $1 per watt..
Shawn Frayne, president of Honolulu- and Hong Kong-based Humdinger Wind Energy, is a prolific inventor and innovator whose work has been inspired by the need for resourceful problem-solving in the world’s most vulnerable regions
While working in Haiti, Frayne noted that providing wind power on a global scale would require hardware that’s simpler and much cheaper than what we’ve got. In response, he teamed with aeronautical engineer Jordan McRae and mechanical engineer Dr. Kurt Kornbluth to develop the Windbelt (pictured below), a radically different power generator that uses a fluttering membrane, magnets and a metal coil to turn wind into power (watch a video here). With no turbine, the Windbelt can produce energy at a cost-per-watt that’s significantly lower than conventional devices. In 2007, Frayne received a Breakthrough Award from Popular Mechanics for the device. He and his collaborators have since improved the Windbelt to a point where they can produce wind power for $1 per watt.
Frayne’s philosophy of simple ingenuity and accessible solutions is reflected in other projects he’s involved in as well: among them, for example, is a solar water purification bag that can be easily locally manufactured and cheaply distributed. Frayne believes that we need more than just incremental innovation in water and energy technology, and thinks that the constraints of the developing world can provide the necessary inspiration to make significant technological leaps that can benefit the Global South and Global North simultaneously. His grand plan: to establish a global network of invention incubators to foster just that change.
I spoke with Frayne after watching his presentation at Sustainable Brands 2009.
Adele Peters: You often use the phrase “confluent technology.” Can you explain what you mean by that?
Shawn Frayne: There’s a confluence of the problems and talents in developing countries with the problems and talents in wealthy countries. Problems — particularly in the fields of energy and water — that are being faced now by developing countries are soon to be faced by the entire world. Thirty years ago, when technology created a new low-cost solar panel for Africa, or a low-cost wind tower to be used in Haiti, that might have been isolated to those places. Now those types of technologies can transcend the boundaries between developing countries and wealthy nations, and, at least the theory goes, go on to create new industries in wealthy countries as well.
AP: What’s the difference between now and 30 years ago?
SF: The problems are more acute now. I suppose what allows this to be possible now, what allows designers and inventors around the world to collaborate on creating new products is the high speed of FedEx, Skype, online whiteboard tools, all those things that I think basically over the last five years allowed this idea of the global invention factory to become a reality.
AP: I know you have a new project under development that arranges the Windbelts into a panel-form to generate electricity from the wind. Can you describe how that works?
SF: This new development is called a ‘Windcell Panel,’ and its functionally a lot like a solar panel that catches the wind instead of the sun. The Panels consist of 20 individual Windbelts in a single frame, adding up to a rating of 100W of power per panel, with an off-the-line cost of around US$100. This translates to uninstalled electricity of around 4 cents per kWh with 6 m/s average winds — four or five times cheaper than solar PV. We’re engineering these systems to be simple, very low cost, modular, and able to catch low speed winds.
The Humdinger team believes this new version of the Windbelt technology will allow cities to finally capture urban air flows over buildings and under bridges on a large scale of 10 kilowatts on up to 100 megawatts of grid-tied per installation (say, under the 30 km bridge recently installed in Shanghai, as shown in the illustration). We’re also going after coastal installations and rural power — basically, anywhere other energy technologies can’t go cost-effectively. Or quickly — we believe we will ramp up to several hundred installations relatively fast (relative to wind turbine farms or solar farms), since the Panels will be as easy to transport and install as a fence.
AP: Why do you think the big clean tech of the future will be born in the developing world?
SF: An engineer sitting in Silicon Valley may look at the solar panels easily available in his or her vicinity and think, “I can redesign these panels to get an additional 1% efficiency.” That’s good, and that incremental innovation is necessary, but in different environments, where there’s a different set of constraints (such as in developing countries) designers and inventors can sometimes be pushed to create more than incremental changes. Silicon-based solar is decreasing in cost, partially due to supply and demand, but it’s also due to incremental efficiency that’s grown over time with that technology. But you can never push that below, say, $2/watt, even over the next ten years of development. A more disruptive technology, that isn’t based on silicon, could push it to a quarter a watt.
Those sorts of technologies typically only get invented when the constraints demand that sort of serious change. Most of the innovations that the modern world rests on today were formed over 100 years ago, and those key foundational inventions were formed to pull the world out of poverty. Now we’re in a weird situation where grand changes — grand inventions and new starting points — are needed, but most of the designers and inventors that can get funding are in wealthy countries where the pressures and constraints don’t push them to design the fundamental shifts.
The opinion I have, and the opinion of the others that I work with, is that there’s a huge untapped brain resource in developing countries. When designers or inventors have a different set of constraints, and they’re clever, there’s going to be great inventions and innovations that come out of those people. We’re just looking to link the risk that is required to do sort of revolutionary invention and design with some sort of reward. Some people do invent altruistically, but they’re not free to do that if their family’s starving. You need some way to link that risk with reward. That’s part of what we’re trying to prove through Humdinger; we’re trying to create a billion-dollar business that will give this whole idea some chops, and then go from there.
AP: So you are interested in investing in other inventors in the developing world in the future?
SF: Yes, that’s the dream. The dream is a global network of small invention incubators. One in Hong Kong, one in New York, one in Haiti, one in Zambia, one in Guatemala. Spread all around, to have different constraints and different brainpower and leverage that to solve clean energy and clean water, that’s the initial focus. That’s the dream that all of us have formed collectively and that we’re working towards. That dream requires money, and we’re trying to make some of that money through the Windbelt, and more. The goal isn’t to build one invention; the goal is to build smart investments to fund invention.
AP: What are some new examples of “reverse leapfrogging” – that is to say, technologies that were created for the developing world, but are now being adapted for the developed world?
SF: There are several countries in Africa where you can text people money on your cell phone. I know that I can’t do that in the U.S. very easily. A lot of financial trading technologies are being developed in developing countries. I’ve mentioned the Tata Nano car before, and the plethora of innovations that had to be developed to enable the development of a $2500 personal vehicle, and a lot of those will likely be incorporated down the road in the next generation of electric and non-electric vehicles because now they’ve been proven in at least one scenario. Another example is the One Laptop Per Child screen, a revolutionary design which has two separate types of pixels, which allows you to read in the dark and read in full sunlight with extremely little power consumption. That’s something that we’ll see incorporated in more laptops soon. There are a whole lot of small things like that that are starting to bubble up. I expect that we’ll see more and more of this over the coming years.
AP: What progress will be critical for a renewable energy future?
SF: I think the biggest step would be that renewable energy technologies dip below the threshold of about $1/watt for solar and wind. That would have a huge influence. We’ve talked to people in the solar industry, and obviously the wind industry, and if there was anything that was truly disruptive, that dropped significantly below that threshold which nothing right now can breach, that would make a huge change on the production side.
Another key thing that has to happen to enable sustainability is the development of fortifiable energy storage systems, but not only for the obvious reason of storing vast amounts of power and being able to ship that around. Also, for enabling things like wireless sensor networks that gather information about energy use — right now those wireless sensors have to be powered by batteries that only last a year or two years. The batteries have to be replaced, creating millions of batteries in waste, and even more significantly, perhaps, it limits the amount of information that can be gathered, because it makes each of those sensors thousands of dollars because of maintenance costs. If there was a battery that lasted 20 years to power those devices, that would be a leap that could happen.
There are things that companies like Better Place are doing — Better Place has a new business model for electric cars, using battery switchout — systems like that which pull transportation off of oil and put it in the territory of electricity, then create a scenario where a huge chunk of the energy usage in the world gets pulled into the terrain where it can be powered directly by renewable energies such as wind and solar. Right now that is not possible to do. With petrol-based vehicles and transportation being the de facto system in the world, we can talk about a lot about electricity generation, like what the Windbelt can do and what solar can do, but ultimately that’s only one piece of the pie. We need to pull another piece of the pie into electricity so it can be addressed by these renewable technologies. I think business models like Better Place are key to that as well.
All images courtesy of Shawn Frayne and Humdinger Wind Energy.