Wind and the Whale

Humpback whales are surprisingly agile, executing tight banking turns in spite of their 40-ton hulk. How? One factor may be ten or so fibrous ‘tubercles’ protruding from the leading edge of their pectoral flippers. These protruding, oversized knuckles (a humpback’s flippers are analogous to your arms, but most of the length is finger) alter the airflow over the flipper. The result is an airfoil that is largely immune to the sudden loss of lift or ‘stall’ can trip up fighter pilots when they try to carve into turns too aggressively.

What does all that have to do with our energy future? Toronto-based airfoil designer WhalePower Corp. thinks that the serrated profile of the humpback fin could hold the key to smoother-running pumps, fans and wind turbines. Find all that a bit much? Would you believe the scientist behind this novel airfoil design is Frank Fish?

Read more about the promise of this technology in the current issue of Discover Magazine (see “Wind Turbine That Imitates Flippers Could Increase Efficiency”).

A note of caution: Convincing risk-averse wind turbine builders and buyers to try something new will require some, “pretty hard test data,” according to Bob Thresher, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Wind Technology Center. In other words WhalePower has plenty more work ahead than the hopeful tagline on its website – “A Million Years Of Field Tests” – would suggest.

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