Typhoons – hurricanes, to those in the Atlantic and Northeast Pacific – are getting far more troublesome. The number of extremely powerful typhoons hitting the coasts of Southeast Asia has perhaps tripled since the 1970s, which means they have become 50 percent more destructive.
Like the enigmatic first ruler of ancient China, a man from Japan has come up with a rather cunning plan to bend the forces of nature to his will. He ultimately plans to capture the energy being released in a solitary typhoon to maybe, just maybe, power the land of the rising sun for half a century.
The way in which he is going to achieve this act of incredible benevolence is to use a new wind turbine design of the likes the world has never seen. Most wind turbines are destroyed in the most powerful tropical cyclones, but this new structure rotates on multiple axes, not just one.
This means that they'll theoretically be able to soak up the kinetic energy being released by the multi-direction, turbulent winds being blasted out by an incoming typhoon – and that’s a lot of kinetic energy. By one estimate, 1.5 trillion joules of kinetic energy are generated by a typhoon every second, which is enough to power roughly 38 typical US households for an entire year.
Typhoon Lionrock, pictured this August, making its eccentric way towards Japan. NASA
It’s this sort of calculation that’s led to the inventor of this new turbine, Atsushi Shimizu, to claim that a network of his turbines facing down a single typhoon could power Japan for 50 years. Of course, this is just a hypothetical number – storing all that energy in one go would be impossible using current battery technology, and it’s unlikely the turbines are quite that efficient at capturing all of a typhoon’s kinetic energy.
In fact, a prototype turbine in small-scale tests appears to have an efficiency of 30 percent. Although this is 10 percent lower than conventional wind turbines, this new one won’t be ripped to pieces in a typhoon.
“Japan actually has a lot more wind power than it does solar power, it's just not utilized,” Shimizu told CNN. “Japan has the potential to be a super power of wind.”
Due to a shortage of working nuclear power plants – and a somewhat unfounded backlash against it since the Fukushima incident in 2011 – Japan has been suffering from an energy deficit. It’s had to import nearly 84 percent of its energy requirements, which means that it has very little energy security.
Addressing these concerns with a green energy focus, Shimizu quit his job in 2013 to start Challenergy, and recently won funding to produce his typhoon-resistant wind turbine. The first prototype has been installed on the western island of Okinawa. Now all they need is a typhoon to test it out.