Images Courtesy of Humdinger Wind
There are developing countries and developed ones, and the former is always expected to learn from the latter.
But inventor Shawn Frayne, founder of Humdinger Wind Energy and a proponent of what he calls Confluence Technology, knows it can be the other way around. Frayne tells Theme about his WindBelt energy generating device, conceived of when the postgrad tagged along on an MIT Design Lab class trip to Haiti in 2004, and its ramifications for the rest of us.
Theme: What did you see a need to invent when you were in Haiti?
Shawn Frayne: The challenge was to develop technology that is cheap, locally manufacturable, and gathers enough energy from the environment to power LED lights, charge cell phones, or power radios.
And that was part of the Design Lab’s assignment?
No, that was just an observation that I came up with on my own; I was part of a separate team that was working to convert agricultural waste into cooking charcoal. During the course of that project, I spotted this other challenge of creating an energy harvesting source that could be locally manufacturable to help displace [widely-used and unhealthy] kerosene lighting.
What came from that effort was this WindBelt technology. It’s a new wind generator, the first that doesn’t use rotation as its principle mechanism; instead, it uses vibrations. You can think of it like a blade of grass between two fingers and what would happen if you blew at it. You can see some examples online if you Google “WindBelt.”
How did you come up with the idea of using vibrations? Was there a “Eureka” moment?
For a long, long time—ten years—I’ve been dreaming of an alternative to turbine-based power, and the trip to Haiti [helped crystallize] that it was a real problem that needed a solution. As for the actual concept, I thought about a lot of different things: “What if I could have the power of a blade of grass in a field, swaying in the wind?” Turns out that doesn’t work so well. So it was, “What if I could do this,” “What if I could do that?” It was a combination of testing and ideas that didn’t work.
I guess the “Eureka” moment was when I remembered seeing footage of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge [which famously suffered a wind-induced collapse in 1940, footage available on YouTube.—Ed.] and how much energy the bridge was extracting from the air. And then seeing a flag in Haiti flapping, and after that, seeing an electric guitar. Then it was taking those ideas and developing it into this idea of the WindBelt. There was a lot of testing.
How many iterations did you go through before settling upon the final design?
About a dozen very different ideas. After finally arriving at the current ribbon-based configuration, probably another hundred variations led me to where it is today. It took about four years.
You seem to have a strong interest in sustainable energy.
I have a strong interest in working on projects that focus on emerging economies. It just so happens that the projects with the biggest potential impact are in the field of energy and clean water; those are my two foci. It’s part of the greater movement called Confluence Technology.
Tell us about Confluence Technology.
It’s been coined the third stage of globalization* where innovations and inventions in developing countries start to impact the industries in wealthy countries. It’s a movement that’s been starting to pick up.
How does your company, Humdinger, fit into that?
Humdinger Wind Energy is essentially an R&D lab. We’re seeking to prove that a technology sparked from the constraints of developing countries can lay the foundations for new industries in wealthy countries. Practically speaking, we develop the foundational intellectual property and foundational science, then partner with different industry players to incorporate these technologies into their applications.
How long will it be before, say, a consumer can walk into a Bed, Bath & Beyond, pick up a WindBelt, bring it home, and plug something into it?
In terms of a “first world” consumer being able to pick something up, they probably won’t be able to buy the WindBelt for another few years; the timeline is to have different versions for different applications over the next three to five years. In March ’09 we’re scheduled to start doing small-scale, free lighting installations/demos in Haiti and Guatemala.
What do you envision for the initial “first world” applications?
A small device that powers very small scale applications, like sensors that monitor air quality, or a power source for wi-fi repeaters. But down the line we’ll certainly be working on systems that the consumer would be able to use. Right now, it’s more like we’re developing and protecting the windbelt technology in wealthy countries, with the goal of licensing the intellectual property to different industry leaders in the States, the EU, Japan, etc. We’re hoping that the technology gets absorbed a little bit into these companies. We feel that energy always compliments an application, so it makes more sense to me to partner up with industry partners through licensing deals related to intellectual property in wealthy countries.
[*In a nutshell: First stage of globalization, pro-. Second stage, anti-. Third stage, partial rapprochement.—Ed.]