Clean energy from tornadoes? PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel funds prototype

The experimental technology generates electricity from a 'vortex' fueled by the excess heat at power plants.

I've heard of some pretty novel ideas for generating low-carbon power, but this one ranks up near the top.

A Canadian inventor is working on the prototype for a system called the Atmospheric Vortex Engine (AVE), which uses man-made tornadoes to generate energy.

And his company, AVEtec Energy Corp., just received a $300,000 grant from Paypal co-founder and early Facebook backer Peter Thiel to help test the idea. 

Here's how the system works, according to AVEtec's Web site:

"An atmospheric vortex engine (AVE) uses a controlled vortex to capture mechanical energy produced when heat is carried upward by convection in the atmosphere. A tornado-like vortex is produced by admitting warm or humid air tangentially into a circular arena. Tangential entries cause the warm moist air to spin as it rises forming an anchored convective vortex. The work of convection is captured with turbines located at ground level around the periphery of the arena. The heat source can be solar energy, warm water or waste heat."

Whicy is to say that the vortex acts like a low-cost virtual chimney, one that is controlled and anchored to its heat source. A prototype is pictured below.



An AVE system could be used to drive turbines, generating power. The prototype due out in summer 2013 will be 40 meters high with a diameter of 30 centimeters, which will be used to drive a 1-meter diameter turbine. The dream is to help power plants generate additional capacity at a cost of less than cents per kilowatt-hour.