The attractions industry has many times seen real-world machines inspire amusement rides, like roller coasters that developed from coal mine transports or dark rides that came from flight simulators. But it’s not too often amusement rides stimulate the creation or transformation of valuable and important mechanical systems. The WindWheel turbine is a notable exception.
As with so many great inventions, the inspiration for the WindWheel grew out of a chance conversation (pardon the pun) between friends—Dick Chance, CEO of ChanceWind (www.chancewind.com), which is a sister company of Chance Rides, and Jerry Barber (www.barberwind.com), founder and former president of Venture Ride Manufacturing, who holds some 50 patents and invented several amusement rides, including the prolific Free Fall.
Chance tells Funworld how their conversation took place: “Jerry and I have known each other for 40 years and we speak regularly. About 2007 or 2008 he asked me what we were doing, and I told him we’d been looking at wind energy. He said he had just come up with an idea for a new wind turbine. I asked him to tell me about it, and he said he’d just come show it to me, and he flew here (Wichita, Kansas) the next day!”
After reviewing the idea, Chance and Barber took it to an aeronautical engineering firm to have the turbine blades designed, and Chance says this firm thought the new concept was a great one.
Barber now has one patent on the design, and others are pending. ChanceWind is the exclusive licensee of WindWheels up to 1 megawatt (MW). “That’s the market we’re interested in, which is the community wind market—smaller communities or end users between 100 kilowatts (kW) up to 1 MW that are doing it for their own usage,” says Chance.
What Makes It Different
There are many elements that distinguish the WindWheel from traditional wind turbines.
One that’s immediately apparent is it actually has a circular rim connecting and supporting all of the turbine’s blades at their tips, giving it the appearance of a Ferris wheel. Also, instead of the WindWheel’s generators being located in the center hub, as with a traditional turbine, they’re located on the outer rim, so there’s no need for a gearbox.
Barber explains how he came up with this concept: “At Venture Rides, we built up to 100 rides a year and learned the hard way that you don’t want to put big gearboxes in them. But traditional wind turbines have big gearboxes, and they have to be taken down every three or four years and rebuilt at a cost of $250,000 to $500,000 each. So I just looked for a way to get rid of the gearboxes, and if you look at Ferris wheels, they’re rim driven. Also, one of the huge problems with traditional wind turbines is the highest wind speed is at the blade tips, and the blades bend a lot. But the [WindWheel’s] rim supports the blades out at the tips.”
Since the center hub rotates at a slower speed than the blade tips, conventional turbines use a gearbox to increase the speed of the hub—where the generators are located—from, say, 50 rpm to 1,000 rpm. But because the WindWheel’s generators are on the rim, where the rotational speed is much higher, the generators can create equal or superior energy without a gearbox, even when the blades are turning slower.
Another major and visually apparent difference in the WindWheel is its five wind blades, rather than the standard three blades seen on most turbines. Chance explains why this is such a significant feature: “First, the five blades allow the wheel to turn at a slower speed than the three-bladed one because they produce higher torque, so we can run the generators off of tire with no gear reduction. The ring diameter is 70 feet, and the tire diameter is 2 feet, so you get the reduction right there, plus we’re turning at 25 rpm instead of 50 rpm. It’s a direct drive from the drive tire to the generator, and that’s a big plus. So we’re getting the same amount of power at a lower speed than the three-blade.”
Chance adds that these lower speeds also mean less wind noise from the blades, allowing the WindWheel to be placed closer to populated areas. “A three-blade could be very annoying to people nearby,” he says, “but the five-blade wouldn’t produce the noise and would be more aesthetically pleasing.” Perhaps even more significant, Chance says engineers have calculated that over a one-year period, this five-blade design will produce 30 percent more energy than a three-blade turbine.
Another component of the WindWheel is its high-efficiency, permanent-magnet generators—the new technology in wind-energy generation that has a much wider power-output curve to them. For instance, a traditional generator may produce its maximum power output at 1,800 rpm, but it experiences a sharp decline if it goes much below or above that number. On the other hand, permanent magnet generators may produce maximum power output at 800 rpms but will still produce 80 percent of that at 600 rpm or 1,000 rpm.
In fact, most conventional wind turbines have a single generator, but the WindWheel has two, and Chance reveals this concept also came from the amusement business. “Ferris wheels have four to eight motors, and if one goes out, you can still operate the ride with three motors,” he says. “Same concept with this—if one goes out, you still have one left that will continue to generate power.”
He also notes that by having the generators on the ring, if one does fail, the WindWheel has a small jib crane on its tower that swings over, hooks to the generator, and lowers it to the ground, which prevents from having to disassemble the whole turbine to change the generator. “So basically, your annual maintenance is just changing the tire, and a truck mechanic can do that,” Chance chuckles.
With traditional wind turbines, when the owner’s power demand increases, the only options are to either replace the turbine with a larger one or add a second turbine, but this is not the case with the WindWheel. ChanceWind can add sailets, which are 12-foot wing tips installed on the outside of the ring that capture more wind. The standard WindWheel comes with two 50 kW generators, but with the addition of sailets, two more 50 kW generators can be installed, doubling the unit’s output to 200 kW.
The influence of Ferris wheels on the design of the WindWheel cannot be understated, and when asked why no one had ever thought of installing sailets on wind turbines before, Barber quips, “Because no one has ever put rims on them before!”
Ideal for Amusements
ChanceWind is currently constructing its prototype, which will have a 100-foot-tall tower and a blade ring with a diameter of 70 feet—a total height of 135 feet. Chance says this is another advantage of the WindWheel because most community height restrictions kick in at 150 feet. The unit will produce 100 kW of energy, expandable to 200 kW with sailets.
Chance says amusement parks weren’t ChanceWind’s first marketing targets for the WindWheel, but the company discovered that because of parks’ experience with Ferris wheels, they were immediately receptive to the idea. He adds it’s also a great concept for parks because they have 24-hour load demands, and the low-noise WindWheel can be located closer to guest areas than standard wind turbines.
Barber sees other advantages for parks: “Their real core customer base is under 35 years old, and they are taught constantly about green energy, so if they see these operating at a park, that’s very important to them. Schools can go straight to the parks’ websites and see what the wind turbine is doing with the real-time monitoring the parks can post. So parks would not only get the energy from the WindWheel, it’s great for their image.”