Mechanical 'trees' generate energy by swaying in the wind

Researchers look to convert the sway of buildings into electricity, too.
Billy Steele
B. Steele|02.02.16

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Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images
Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

What if windmills looked more like trees? Well, a team of engineers at Ohio State University is looking for answer to that question with structures that resemble trees, but actually create energy when they move in the breeze. That swaying motion from the wind, and the resulting structural vibrations, is converted into electricity with electromechanical materials such as polyvinylidene fluoride (PVDF). The project isn't merely concerned with those tree-like structures, though. It also looks to harvest the energy generated from the vibrations of buildings and bridges.

"Buildings sway ever so slightly in the wind, bridges oscillate when we drive on them and car suspensions absorb bumps in the road," said Ryan Harne, director of the Laboratory of Sound and Vibration Research. "In fact, there's a massive amount of kinetic energy associated with those motions that is otherwise lost. We want to recover and recycle some of that energy."

At first, the recovered energy will be used to power the sensors that keep tabs on the structural integrity of buildings and bridges. In other words, the system will be self-sufficient, able to power itself from the vibrations created by moving the wind or from cars driving across it. Harne says the tree-like structures could eventually be used in small-scale scenarios where other alternative energy sources, like solar panels, aren't an option.

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