It took a good look at a flipper to flip wing tech on its head.
If there was ever a summer when you could really learn to appreciate a fan, it's this one. Check out those blades slicing the excruciatingly humid air into gusts of momentary relief. They seemed so perfect, those blades, and for all intents and purposes they were.
That is, until someone took a good look at a bumpy humpback whale fin. That's what the folks did who now run WhalePower, a Toronto-based company that custom-designs blades for applications ranging from fans to turbines.
According to director of research and development Stephen Dewar, it was his business partner, Dr. Frank Fish, who had the light bulb moment.
"Frank was buying a gift for a colleague. He picked up a sculpture of a humpback whale and saw the bumps on the leading edge of the flipper," says Dewar, an inventor and the creator of, fittingly, Lorne Greene's New Wilderness. "He walked out of there asking ‘What the hell are those bumps doing on the leading edge?'"
From there, casual examination of humpbacks in action revealed their astounding agility. "This is an animal that weighs as much as 14 Hummers. They are 27 feet long and turn at a radius of 27 feet," says Dewar. If you can do that with your boat, he adds, you're winning the America's Cup.
That's great for whales, but how does it apply to us? Turns out those bumps, or more precisely the channels along the fins that the bumps create, reduce drag.
"It's not just the oceans we don't understand; the physics of this kind of airflow is totally new. It's why it gets written up in physics journals around the world," says Dewar.
He says blades that mimic these bumps, or tubercles, as they're called, can increase efficiency 15 to 20 per cent, and even 30 per cent as the tech matures.
"From a conservation point of view, the best measure you can take is to conserve a kilowatt. You cut down on the whole footprint."
I don't have to hurt your brain coming up with a list of fans around me at the moment. Besides the obvious one blowing air in my face, there's another one nearby pulling air into the HVAC system. Add a few in the desktop computer I'm using. Thousands of fans go by in the cars outside. There's a fan in the fridge and another in the microwave. How many compressors and pumps are around? I don't know - but I'd bet they could benefit from a big efficiency boost, too.
Dewar says 17 per cent of the world's generating capacity is using fans of all types. Increasing efficiency by a third is nothing to sneeze at.
Another hot subject is computer and server heat. "It consumes up to 5 per cent of the U.S.'s generating capacity," he says, adding that as servers take on more tasks, the fan tech has stayed relatively unchanged. That's probably why he's in talks to license WhalePower tech to major server users. "You can imagine for yourself who's buying millions of servers every year," hints Dewar.
Licensing, by the way, is how WhalePower works. They do the brain work. Then they create the tool for a licensee with large-scale production capabilities to produce their new whale-powered fans.
Another current project the team is working on involves adapting diesel truck engines to cut down on the horsepower being wasted to keep fans running. "It pays for itself in a week and a half for a large truck. For a stationary generator, the fan is paid for the first morning and continues running with reduced fuel consumption," says Dewar.
Rethinking existing products to be more efficient is, admittedly, less glamorous than inventing some kind of miraculous 100 per cent green fuel cell - but it's part of a plan that bridges to bigger and better.
Turbines? They're definitely on WhalePower's list. There's another seriously amazing benefit to the bumpy design. It's nearly silent. So no more grumpy neighbours complaining about whirring windmills.
But that's just the future. The present is already teeming with simple applications just waiting for a new kind of blade to chop into the wasteful fanning of the flames of excess.