Clean Tech

Design driven by the wind and the sun

Preeti Mehra | Updated on September 22, 2020 Published on September 22, 2020

Plant it anywhere The ‘Wind Tree’ developed by French innovator Larivière can be set up right next to one’s company, on top of the roof or in the heart of a busy city; The product designed for the Indian market, Lotus (at left)

Plant it anywhere The ‘Wind Tree’ developed by French innovator Larivière can be set up right next to one’s company, on top of the roof or in the heart of a busy city; The product designed for the Indian market, Lotus (at left)

When clean technology meets with innovators, the outcome is sustainable as well as ingenious, says Preeti Mehra

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011 came as a shock to French innovator Jérôme Michaud-Larivière. It left a deep impact on him and triggered off the thought of producing energy “close to the users, and may be in an elegant way, without any damage, noise, or pollution.”

One day, as he took a stroll in the park, a unique idea struck him — why not replicate the leaf’s design for an energy tapping device? He recalls, “It was a sunny day… I was walking in the park and I suddenly saw the leaves on the trees trembling on the branches. There was absolutely no wind. Just a gentle breeze. I said to myself, ‘if we could harvest the energy of each trembling leaf, multiplied by the number of leaves on the tree, maybe we could generate power by transforming this energy into green electricity through a micro generator.’ The idea was born.”

The concept led to Lariviere creating biomorphic ‘aeroleaves’ — small trembling wind turbines that looked exactly like leaves on a tree. Christened Arbre à Vent or ‘Wind Tree’, the first such three-metre-tall steel structure featured 72 artificial leaves or aeroleaves. Working as mini vertical turbines, the aeroleaves silently rotated in the wind, with the Wind Tree generating around 3.1 kW of power. Though this may be a small amount of power compared to a full-scale wind turbine, aeroleaves can function even in scenarios where the wind is as light as 7 kmph, something a large turbine cannot achieve.

Once the idea had taken root, Lariviere started his company New World Wind (NWW). It took the innovator five years of R&D to keep improving upon the concept and obtain various patents, including for the Wind Tree and the Wind Bush (smaller than the tree and modular).

Today, he has a product lined up for the Indian market, locally manufactured and called ‘Lotus’. “The Lotus has the same design as the Wind Bush without the solar petals at the foot of the leaves. And the Lotus has the benefit of a relative modularity (you have choice between 12, 16 or 20 aeroleaves). Nice-looking but simpler and cheaper to manufacture, so that we can sell it at a fair price, we hope,” says Lariviere.

A leaf from the same book

If NWW has an interesting wind energy product, IT company Capgemini took a leaf from the same book of nature and created a solar energy product last year — the ‘Solar Tree’.

“The unique tree-like structure has a functional power generator that mimics a tree trunk with solar panels acting as leaves,” explains Viswanathan R, Senior Director, Corporate Real Estate Services, India, Capgemini. The Solar Tree, installed at the company’s Mumbai and Hyderabad campuses, is part of its sustainability initiative — the Architects of Positive Futures program — and provides an outdoor meeting and working area.

“Our solar tree is used for solar energy conversion into electricity which powers a variety of applications. A brimming light from the central sun is free of pollution, available in abundance, independent of non-renewable resources and safe for environment. The location of this tree helps us reap its benefits even more,” he says.

The Solar Tree, in fact, has become a popular icon and others too have pitched in with their designs. In September last year, Durgapur’s Central Mechanical Engineering Research Institute (CMERI) too announced that it had developed a Solar Tree that “takes up only four square feet of space and produces about three kilowatts of power, enough to power about five households. Conventional solar photovoltaic systems occupy 400 square feet of space to produce the same amount of electricity.”

Developed by Indian researchers, it was designed to occupy minimal space so that it can be fitted onto rooftops and on highways both in urban and rural areas. The design is such that the vertical solar plant can harness 10 per cent more sunlight. The leaf-like solar panels can be rotated twice a day to be aligned to the movement of the sun. It being a government initiative, CMERI has licensed the solar tree technology to several companies and is working on other appealing models to suit the needs of public places, parks and markets.

Biomimicry, the basis

For individual designers, however, innovating with design is not an easy process, though it comes with a lot of excitement. Priya Vakil, Co-founder of Think Phi and well known for the design of the Ulta Chaata (inverted umbrella) canopy, can vouch for the years of labour she and her husband, Samit Choksi have put in.

But, through it, their products have evolved, always keeping in mind the need, the landscape and the multiple uses it has to be put to. The Think Phi canopy, since its inception in 2015, added on many more sustainable functions. From a parking shade it turned into a water harvester, solar energy generator, electric vehicle charger, workstation, and a waiting area. “Achieving success in a product comes from putting sustainability at its core. It rarely works if it is an afterthought. We have always got our inspiration for design solutions from Nature. A study of how Nature addresses simple problems through design can provide deep insights into how things work. Biomimicry forms the basis of our product design approach,” explains Vakil.

Today, the company is gearing up for a post pandemic era and has developed outdoor meeting rooms for ‘work from home’ employees to come to workspaces to collaborate or meet with clients.

“We are developing the outdoor meeting rooms to be future ready — automated sanitation spray systems after occupants leave the room, contactless entry using an app to book and enter the space, etc. In a post-Covid world, our product relies on technology to operate safely,” says Vakil, hastening to add that it would continue to be immersed in nature.

Evolving with the years

Lariviere’s products too have evolved with the years. He says he needed to achieve, “a combination between efficiency and design. The main idea was to hide all the mechanical components and to look like a tree. The evolution was to determine the right number of leaves to reach a relevant economic model. At the beginning, more than 350 wind turbines were necessary to reach minimum power. It was impossible to manage so many wires, connections and generators, now there are only 36 generators! We have improved the energy production by a factor of 10.”

There is also the wish to adapt to every possible landscape. “Set it up right next to your company, in the middle of your garden, on the top of your roof, even in the heart of a busy city. Different designs for different budgets,” pitches NWW.

But both Vakil and Lariviere have had to take years to adapt their products to different scenarios. Cost too plays a big factor and can be inhibiting. Says Lariviere, “… it is impossible at the beginning to offer good prices, we must reach a critical sales threshold to be able to reduce costs and offer our trees to as many people as possible. We are optimistic that we will get there in India.”

But one thing is for sure, once you get used to sustainable designs, everything else seems second best.

Take Capgemini, for instance. Viswanathan R says that the company now has sustainability at the core of all its solutions.

At its campuses you can witness Wi-Fi enabled Solar Gazebos for colleagues to meet and collaborate, solar car parks that generate renewable energy and have automatic vehicle cleaning arrangements, solar pedestrian walkways and even a solar powered amphitheatre. ‘Solar forests’ are also on the cards. In all the cases, there is one common factor — each one is driven by design and commitment.

So long as there is the sun, and wind, there is a way.

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Published on September 22, 2020
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