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UCL Bitesize Lectures: Renewable Energy vs the MOD

Slightly underground in all senses of the word, the best way to spend your Friday lunchtimes at the moment is with the weekly series of lectures held at UCL. Called Bitesize, the weekly event is held in the basement of a cafe in UCL’s Lewis’s building (at the Euston Road end of Gower Street) and lasts 45 minutes. There are two speakers per event, both early career stage researchers from UCL, and each gets 15 minutes followed by five minutes worth of questions to talk about their latest research. It appears popular; the 40 or so people attending today’s lectures had more questions than there was time to address in the time.

Today’s first speaker was Dr Alessio Balleri of the Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering discussing his work on a new design of wind turbine called the Wind Lens, research funded by the Japanese ministry for the environment. He started with a review of the current situation, reminding us that the EU has targets of 20% of energy to be produced from renewable sources by 2020. The biggest contributor is expected to be wind power, as it is the most mature of the current technologies.

Unknown to me, wind turbines have a more formidable opponent than the unfortunate local residents who object to the noise and eyesores. 50% of all pending wind farm developments in the UK are facing opposition by the Ministry of Defence. It turns out that the problem is radar. Wind turbines disrupt radar, with consequences for all sorts of uses, including weather surveillance, air traffic control systems and most concerning, for the MOD air defences. Radar detects aircraft (and other objects) by sending a pulse and looking at the frequency shift of the echo. Unfortunately, wind turbines produce a very similar frequency shift to that of aircraft, leading to serious disruption of tracking systems in the vicinity of wind farms.

Many solutions have been proposed to tackle this problem, mostly looking at changing the mechanics of the radar system, but the Wind Lens project looks at trying to minimise the impact of the farms by changing the design of the turbines themselves. By fitting a ring around the blades, the wind is concentrated, reducing the radar signature. Dr Balleri’s research team is currently conducting a trial into this and early results are promising; results suggest disruption can be minimised by a factor of up to 30, with additional benefits of reduced noise and a safer structure, with the blades protected.

If this design could be improved to reduce the impact on radar systems, could wind farms and the MOD live happily side by side? Despite the early stage of the research, Dr Balleri was asked if he could see this design being built in the UK in the near future? Absolutely, he replied.

For more on the Wind Lens project, you can view this report on the project:

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