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John Dabiri: a researcher who knows which way the wind is blowing

Posted on 05 June 2014.

In 2009, the work of the American biophysicist John Dabiri revolutionized our model of wind energy. And what was the source of his inspiration? Schools of fish.

When it comes to research into renewable energy, nature can provide a source of innovation. John Dabiri, Professor of Aeronautics and Bioengineering at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), invented a revolutionary new wind turbine by studying schools of fish.

A conventional helix wind turbine converts 47% of wind energy into electricity. But this average rate of production drops significantly if the turbine is placed too close to other turbines, since interference leads to energy loss.

John Dabiri discovered a solution to this problem... in the ocean. While examining schools of fish, he noticed that each fish creates waves in the water as it moves, but these waves do not slow the progress of the group as a whole. On the contrary: “there is constructive hydrodynamic interference between the wakes of neighboring fish,” says Dabiri (source of quote: In other words, the interference caused by each fish helps the entire school travel faster.

Based on his research, in 2009 Dabiri designed a biomimetic wind turbine that bears no resemblance to a traditional wind turbine: in addition to being much shorter in height, it lacks the usual helix. Instead, it has several small panels arranged in cylindrical fashion around a vertical shaft.

And yet this turbine can convert up to 59.3% of the wind’s energy – the maximum power that a wind turbine can provide. Quieter and less costly, these turbines occupy much less land because they work synergistically.

The work of this pioneering researcher earned him a grant from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in 2010. Since that time, modern wind farms have been successfully constructed in Alaska and California.

To learn more:

- John Dabiri’s project as described by the MacArthur Foundation

Main picture: Creative Commons license, - John Dabiri