Monday, December 17, 2012

Peter Thiel funds tornado power: seriously

Peter Thiel, famous for co-founding PayPal and being an early investor in Facebook, has put a small grant of $300,000 into a Canadian inventor who has spent years working on the idea of harnessing man-made tornadoes to produce power. The funding was made through Thiel's Breakout Labs, which is part of the Thiel Foundation and which gives small rounds of funding for cutting-edge, early-stage science and technology research ideas.

The entrepreneur behind tornado power is Louis Michaud, who is a Canadian engineer that has spent years "trying to be taken seriously," as Toronto Star reporter Tyler Hamilton describes him (he profiled Michaud in his book Mad Like Tesla). Michaud's startup is called AVEtec and his technology is called the Atmospheric Vortex Engine (AVE). Breakout Labs describes the technology as:

In his design, warm or humid air is introduced into a circular station, where it takes the form of a rising vortex, i.e. a controlled tornado. The temperature difference between this heated air and the atmosphere above it supports the vortex and drives multiple turbines. The vortex can be shut down at any time by turning off the source of warm air.


AVEtec says vortex-power can deliver energy that is carbon emissions-free, and super cheap at 3 cents per kilowatt hour (coal can be anywhere from 4 to 5 cents per kwh, and it's got some of the highest carbon emissions).

The problem is that the tornado power has to be created in a large power plant, and that has yet to be built and tested at scale. The column of the tornado in a commercial-size plant would be 130 feet tall. Reporter Hamilton says Michaud's plan eventually is to create tornadoes using waste heat from power plant or industrial factory and then harness those vortexes.

AVEtec will work with Lambton College in Ontario to build and study a prototype using the funding from Breakout Labs. Breakout Labs has also funded Modern Meadow, which combines in-vitro meat with 3D printing.

Thiel clearly has an interest in backing early stage research around new ways to use resources from energy to food to water. Despite that he was widely quoted as saying cleantech has been a disaster, he's taking more of an ARPA-E style approach for cleantech through Breakout Labs. Thiel has also put money into LightSail Energy, a startup that makes a next-generation compressed air energy storage technology.