190: Tilting at Turbines – The Future of Wind Turbines


Matt and Sean talk about turbines, shuttering fusion reactors, and more from the mailbag. 

Watch the Undecided with Matt Ferrell episode, Why We Need To Rethink Wind Turbines https://youtu.be/nRV5BGEQHKU?list=PLnTSM-ORSgi7uzySCXq8VXhodHB5B5OiQ

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On today’s episode of Still to be Determined, we’re going to be talking about how when God closes a fusion reactor lab, he opens another. Hey everybody. As usual, I’m Sean Ferrell. I’m a writer. I write some sci fi, I write some stuff for kids, including the recently released The Sinister Secrets of Singe.

And with me is that Matt from Undecided with Matt Ferrell, which takes a look at emerging tech and its impact on our lives. And Matt, how are you doing today? I’m

doing great. How about you?

I’m doing okay. Just trying to just recently recognize, Oh, like, Oh, the temperatures are starting to get chillier.

It’s fall emerges. Later and later in the calendar year now, so here we are almost at the end of October and we’ve been having rather balmy temperatures here in New York City. But I just realized, well, I need to insulate this air conditioning unit that’s in the window that never comes out. So when the temperatures dropped down into the low fifties recently, and I woke up in the middle of the night wondering why I was so cold, I realized, Oh yeah, I got to get, I got to get the supplies to actually winterize this thing.

I am not ready. No, neither am I. Before we get into the conversation about Matt’s most recent episode, which is about wind turbines, we’re going to be talking about that in more detail later. First, we wanted to share, uh, sort of revisit a topic that Matt has had videos about. In fact, not only has he had videos, he’s actually been on the site of…

A place that is currently going to be mothballed. And we’re talking about the Jet Labs, which is the joint European Taurus Labratories. which has a tuckamak reactor, which Matt had the ability to visit this past summer. Was it just this past summer? It feels

like this past summer. It feels like it was

15 years ago.

Yeah. But it was just this past summer, Matt went to the United Kingdom. He went to England and he visited the jet labs and One of Matt’s Patreon supporters, Rav, thank you, Rav, for dropping this into Matt’s mailbox, shared an article, which was just released by the BBC, in which it discusses the closing of this reactor, and…

It’s interesting. Uh, first of all, did you know that this planned shuttering was coming? Did you talk about this with anybody at all?

Yeah, when I was there and I was talking to one of the people that’s the head of the lab of that research facility, uh, we talked about it shutting down. And what’s fascinating is that this is like one of the first times a tokamak like this has been shut down.

So the research of how they’re shutting it down is research. And so they’re learning from how to decommission plants like this. So they’re, they’re learning from every step of the phase from not just building it and using it. It’s also how you take it apart and safely like deconstruct everything. It’s,

yeah, I noticed in the article, yeah, I noticed in the article, there was a reference to they will study the materials that make up the structure itself because that could provide guidance on how better to build sustainable.

Tokamak reactors or similar reactors in the future. So I think it’s, it’s very interesting to say like, well, you have to research the process of every step in order to learn the best practices. It’s something that is all too often not done. And you think about. Cases where, oh, people just go in and they take the thing apart.

And then somebody later is like, how did you do that? And I’m like, we don’t remember.

I, I also feel so lucky that I was able to kind of like squeak in just under the, for the finish line for this, this project. I mean, it’s been an operation since the 1980s and like. The fact that I just got in there like literally months before they closed it down, seeing a piece of history like that is really, really, really cool.

I feel very privileged to have

seen it. It’s also interesting. They were conducting research experiments right up until just a few weeks ago. So this wasn’t like Matt saw a reactor that had already been closed down and they were almost ready to start taking it apart. This was, they were doing work. They were doing the research work in diffusion.

Right up until a few weeks ago, and now they are turning that corner into, okay, we begin taking it apart and doing that part of the research. I think that’s really remarkable that they Have been utilizing it in that fashion right up until the past few weeks. Um, there was also something in the article that referred to joint programs like this.

This started as the European Taurus. So it was a collective, uh, research program. And the article. Reference that there are other joint programs ongoing in Europe, but the United Kingdom has decided, and we’re living through a post Brexit era now, it’s not too surprising, that they have decided that the UK will go it alone in continuing this kind of research, and the UK government has put in a commitment to research up through, I believe it was 2027.

Um, is the year that it was referenced with the hope of having some discoveries that could lead to domestic energy production for the UK. So this is a case where the UK is now going it alone in an attempt to say, well, this kind of research, if it leads to something, we want this to be a domestic product as opposed to a joint product.

So it’s a continuation of. I wouldn’t call it an arms race, but it’s that kind of mentality where there’s been a little bit of a, of a severing of some of the older relationships in this regard and putting more competition to the field where various projects are going into competition. Would you agree that that is in fact what is happening?

And do you see that as A positive or a negative toward this kind of research. There is a huge

race towards fusion right now, especially with um, all the private companies that are springing up. Uh, but to add onto your comment about how UK is kind of going it alone, one of the fascinating things about the Column Science Center where the Jet Tomac was, there’s another tomac there that’s.

New, and they’re doing more research into it still, and then they’re also partnering with a bunch of these private companies, like First Light Fusion is building a plant there, uh, General Fusion is working with them. So it’s, it’s not just, uh, government research into fusion and European research. It’s also, they’re aiding the research of private companies.

And some of these, like First Light Fusion is a British company, so they’re helping a British company do their research. And trying to build out a pilot plan. So it’s fascinating how they’re taking this, like, I don’t want to call it scattershot. It is a very methodical plan they’ve got, but they’re, they’re doing it all from the government research, private research, going it alone, partnerships.

They’re doing a little bit of everything because there is this collective, even though they’re in kind of competition with each other, there is a lot of knowledge sharing that’s going on behind the scenes where they’re all kind of helping each other out. with what they’re all learning because I think they all recognize the only way to kind of crack this code to actually make it functional is together so that going completely alone is not a really good


That’s interesting and you hope that it’s that that kind of openness and willing to reflect on ideas and share and share breakthroughs seems to me to be A positive attitude to go into this with, as opposed to, uh, viewing these things as proprietary, viewing them as a sense of ownership and control. I completely expect and understand that corporations are going to.

Make proprietary claims and come and make ownership claims around things that will come out of this. But I think that on the research side, there’s only positives to come out of one researcher being able to support something else as much as they can. I do understand that researchers are limited in scope as to what they can actually share with one another, but.

You hope that it leads to positives. And that’s, and especially when you think of long term solutions to energy production needs, fusion being one with so much potential and, and so much hope being carried in it. Agreed. Now let’s move on to a conversation about Matt’s most recent episode. This is from October 17th, 2023.

Why we need to rethink wind turbines. And this one, some of the Concept work in the video, in talking about possible redesigns, ends up looking like… I mean, to be honest, ends up looking like a child’s fantasy designing, like, Oh, I know what would make this spaceship great is laser guns. And even better would be laser guns on the laser guns.

And what if those laser guns also had laser guns? So here we have, Oh, you know, what’s great giant. Turbines, you know, it’d be even better. Giant turbines with lots of turbines on them. You know what even better than that? Like, and it just starts looking like a mandelbrot. It’s a mandelbrot construction of just like, and if you squint really, really hard on those smaller turbines, you’ll see they’re even smaller turbines.

So it starts to look a little, huh? Are they really like, is this really where they’re going? Is it? This is really where they’re headed? That’s my first question to you.

Yeah. Well, one, one company, one group is going down that path. Uh, and it’s, will they succeed? I don’t know, but it’s very, it looks promising.

And what they’re doing is, uh, kind of unique. Uh, and I, I do like that it’s, it’s kind of challenging the norm of every, all the major companies are just going bigger and bigger and bigger because the physics of large wind turbines is like the best way to produce the most energy possible. Right. So when you go smaller, it’s like you’re, you’re kind of going against that.

And I love the solution of like, okay, yeah, it’s not going to produce as much from a smaller radius. But guess what? We’ll just tack like 30 of these things together into a giant flyswatter and call it a day. It seems like there’d be so much potential there for potentially helping with birds, potentially helping with, uh, you know, the wake effects that happen from large turbine wind farms.

So it’s like, it’s, it’s really curious to see if it’s going to work out. But it does look very promising.

It’s, it’s a little, it’s a little strange trying to wrap your head around like, like seeing, seeing large wind turbines on the horizon as you’re driving down the highway, it’s still a relatively new thing for me.

Looking out and seeing something that looks like it’s trying to be some sort of. Artificial tree like structure is a little mind stretchy for me. But one of the things you talk about is the size of these structures. They are massive. They’re skyscraper. They’re skyscraper size. Uh, at one point you mentioned that they are how many football fields long?


man, um, 10? I can’t remember offhand the top of my head, but it was, it’s, it’s quite a few football fields. And I’m talking American football fields, not football fields,

soccer fields. Well, that leads me to the first comment I wanted to share, which is from Maren Newley, who says the problem is clearly measuring equipment in the U S customary football fields rather than metric football fields.

So you and Mariluni are on the same page. One of the comments that stood out to me was the question about using of carbon fiber turbines. And this, I believe, is something that you do touch on in another video. I feel like we’ve had this conversation before about carbon fiber filaments being used to construct turbines like this.

Do you want to talk a little bit about that and what the research has shown or not shown?

Well, usually they’re, they’re, uh, fiberglass construction, but they’re very strong and they last a long time, but turbine blades typically after 20 plus years need to be decommissioned and you can’t really, uh. We can’t really recycle them at this point, but there are ways that we can potentially reuse them.

But it’s that longevity and the weight, um, that we’re trying to kind of crack the nut of. Like, how can we make them last longer? How can we make them lighter weight, uh, easier to transport? And when you add carbon filaments to it, it helps to strengthen the blades, helps to potentially, Make them longer lived.

So maybe we can get blades that don’t last just 20 years, they can last 30 plus years. Uh, maybe it will be, there’ll be lighter weights. So it makes it easier to transport them to where they have to get assembled. So there’s all these benefits that can potentially come out of these different techniques of what materials are used in the blades themselves.

So there’s a lot of potential that, uh, people are still exploring.

The number of stories that you share about failure of these turbines and when these fail, it’s pretty dramatic. This is not like, you know, if you have a power failure at a dam, um, the dam typically is not collapsing. It’s like something is going on inside the dam and for all intents and purposes, somebody driving by or walking by might look and simply see a dam and not realize that it’s not actually doing what it’s supposed to be doing.

But when one of these comes down, everybody knows something has happened. It’s there was

15 foot tall structure collapses on the side. It’s like, it’s obvious something

happened. Yeah. And when the one collapsed just hours before it was supposed to be. put into operation. Um, oh, bad PR. Like

I’m picturing some kind of Simpsons character coming out of a bush, playing a sad trombone and then disappearing back in.


Yeah. And Montgomery Burns hiding in the bushes with a thing, a plunger for TNT and just going, wow, this wasn’t needed at all. Uh, but it does. Raise the question for me of when this kind of catastrophic failure occurs, have you seen, and I don’t know that this would have been something that would have come across your radar in your research.

How does a company when the failure is this catastrophic and this visible. Yeah. Handle the PR of this when another industry might have an easier time kind of like pulling a curtain and saying, Oh, we’re having to rework something. It might be another six months and very quietly try to fix the problem and then unveil it again and say like, this is, we’ve been working hard on this and now we’re ready.

As opposed to this, where it comes down and then Siemens. Has to say, oops, we’ve got like an endemic set of problems that we’re trying to figure out. And it really does sound like it all stemmed from not human arrogance, but just like assumptions of proper manufacturing techniques. I mean, that seems to be, reading between the lines, that seems like that’s what Siemens struggled with.

Yeah. Well, there’s, there’s two things to kind of pull apart there. One is… Yeah, it is. When one of these things goes awry, it like gets people’s attention, um, which blows it way out of proportion. It’s kind of like, you know, how, uh, uh, uh, airplane crashes gets a ton of attention, but air flight is the safest mode of transportation on the planet.

It’s like, it happens so infrequently. It’s the same thing with turbines. It’s like, they by and large are fantastic. They live normal lifespans. They do great stuff, but it’s these, when something goes awry. It like everybody it’s like whiplash it’s like you can’t Look away. It’s like, what is going on over there?

Um, so to kind of keep that in perspective. So it’s, it’s not that these things are falling over left and right. We all have to be afraid of them. It’s just, you know, these there’s been some catastrophic problems occasionally with these things and the Siemens issue with how they’ve made those announcements where there’s like this almost like it’s almost like they have to do a recall in a way.

Uh, that is not them collapsing. That is just them prematurely just. Running out, just like after a few years of operation, it might literally like just stop working because the gears have prematurely worn, things like that. So that is a, I’ve talked, okay, let me put it this way. We have, when I make videos, we have, I have a science advisory board.

I have people that help me. Pull these videos together, people with backgrounds in mechanical engineering and physics and all those kinds of things. And one of the people on my science advisory board actually works in the wind industry. So when we were pulling this video together, he was able to provide us some really great, nothing proprietary, but like he was able to provide some really interesting insights as somebody inside the industry and from what he’s seeing inside the industry, as well as what we were finding on our own by pulling in the stuff.

And it’s kind of. From what we were finding on our own versus what he was giving us from the inside, it was the same thing. They kind of meshed and it’s, it’s a race to the bottom. It’s like, there is this, it’s not arrogance. It’s just all speed ahead, push the boundaries, trying to get the biggest, best producing wind turbine ever.

And you’re moving so fast that you’re not slowing down to make sure that you’re not having little Engineering mistakes along the way and that you’re not overlooking a potential problem. So this race to gigantic turbines to produce as much energy as possible to capitalize on this renewable energy shift is what’s caused this.

And so now the industry is kind of taking, not slamming the brakes on, but they’re pushing the brakes on and they’re all kind of like, whoa, okay, maybe we need to slow down a little bit. Yeah. And not focus on this race to the biggest, highest producing turbine ever, but like. really fine tune what we have and make sure the quality is pristine on what we’re doing.

So that seems to be what the collective, uh, consensus inside the industry is. Uh, so it’s like we found this on our own research and we, it was also nice to hear the same exact thing coming from one of our advisors who’s actually in the industry.

Yeah, it seems very much like you hear the, somebody in the background is crunching numbers and saying, well, the math is saying that if the turbine was this much bigger, we’d get this much more energy.

And then an engineer is saying, well, we could go that much bigger because the technology we’re using could sustain that size. So you just keep making a jump as opposed to stopping and saying like, what is it in manufacturing that could cause a problem for us? Um, so it’s. And I don’t chalk that up to arrogance, just almost a short sightedness of like just making the next, it’s only, it’s only a 5 percent bigger.

It’s only 5 percent bigger, but you forget that you’ve done that 10 times. So over a 10 year period, you’ve. So exponentially increase the size of your, the thing you’re building and the sizes of these turbines that you’re talking about now are so much bigger than they were 10 years ago.

Okay. They’re huge.

They’re absolutely gigantic. I also want to be clear, like what I was just saying, there is a pair in paraphrasing the conversations that were had in research. So don’t quote me as I I’m quoting them. It’s more of a paraphrasing about what we found.

So in the comments, there were some people who were speculating.

In ways that I think scratch my kind of like sci fi itch, like, and I just wanted to get your thoughts about . Like these seem a little out of left field, but maybe there’s something there. And I feel like the first one is a subject that you and I have actually already talked about. If I remember correctly.

Having something to do with nautical uses of energy production, using the wind. Gregor Papala writes in to say, Does it have to be heavy and therefore expensive? Does it have to be a turbine? Why not make it fly? I say put up a kite, attach the lower end of the rope to a generator on the ground or on a vessel, add actuators and some intelligence control for the kite’s movement like a cell phone CPU.

Scale it up and voila, you’ve harnessed wind energy with cheap polyethylene fiber cloth rather than carbon fiber or heavy concrete. So this kind of kite energy production. Yeah. What have you seen? What have you heard? And am I right? We’ve talked about this before. There was something about a sail that was being used for vessels.

Yes. Yeah. There’s, there’s sails for vessels, but there are. These kite, just for energy generation, they go up and they kind of do these like figure eights in the sky and the kinetic motion of these kites is being captured and converted into electricity. The big, the big problem with these is, uh, one, the wind.

Wind dies down slow enough that kite comes crashing to the ground. Uh, the amount of energy that it’s generating is not even close to what a wind turbine, traditional turbine, can produce. So there’s all these challenges around these designs. They’re, they’re very novel and they’re still being researched.

But none of them have gotten beyond that pilot testing because there’s so many questions they have to answer. But yes. And then on boats, we’ve talked about like wind power kind of making a comeback for boats, not for necessarily energy generation, but for moving the vessel. Like literally kites that are on the front of a Gigantic ship helping to reduce how much fuel’s needed to pull it forward.

And then these gigantic, like they look just like just giant tubes, going straight up into the sky. But because of the way the wind goes around the tube, it provides forward motion for the, the, uh, the ship. It’s, there’s really cool, clever stuff being tested around this kind of stuff, uh, for shipping, but for energy generation specifically.

Yeah. Kites is something that’s being looked into.

There was also this from Embassy of Jupiter. Airships make more sense to me for transporting bigger and bigger turbine blades rather than 3D printing. It seems like the perfect solution. Turbine blades are constructed as lightly as possible and with airship size, that’s no longer a constraint.

Plus airships are one of the cheapest modes of transport. The only downside is weather sensitivity and that it’s comparatively slow. But when a trip that needs a year of planning is the alternative, those downsides hardly seem to matter. Did you see anything in this sci fi ish vein of, are we going to be walking out our front door and seeing giant delivery of Amazon packages via airships?

Is that something that is even potentially useful? Because, you know, the… The thing about an airship is it would require bringing an airship into a location to deliver something would not be as simple as the airship simply lowering itself toward the ground. I imagine there’s a whole landing protocol and structure need which may in fact be as large as the propeller that you’re trying to construct, the turbine you’re trying to construct.

So what do you think about this? Airship idea or are we really in a ground locked world of, yeah, the difficulty is either build the turbine on site or we’ve got these year long planning stages to deliver these products.

We’re still very much locked on the ground at this point. I did a video, I think it was like two and a half, three years ago about the comeback of airships.

And I probably need to revisit that. Yeah. Um, they are, there is a comeback. There are a bunch of companies that are really trying to make a go at this. Uh, but when you’re talking and talking about like large heavy shipping, it’s, it seems like a huge potential, but keep in mind, there’s a problem with the airship.

So you’ve got an airship and you have this conveyor system that pulls whatever you’ve got up into the ship. That’s great. You fly over to your destination and you lower it down and they take it off the ship. All that heavy weight is now not on the ship. What happens when you let go of a helium balloon?

So you have to have counterweights. So it’s the kind of thing, like some of the stuff that’s being proposed is like, they would take the thing to the destination, lower it down, and then they pick up heavy weights to replace that thing they just delivered. Go up and they go away back to wherever they came from.

That’s not really feasible because you have to get those heavyweights to where they’re going. So it’s like, how did they get there? So it’s like, there’s an airship. These questions have to be… But then there’s airships that are, they have designs where it’s like, uh, whether they’re using water, you know, if they could dump water while they’re taking new things on there’s, there’s all these different things that are being trying to come up with solutions for that problem specifically for airships to make them a kind of commercial transport



and some of them look very, have a lot of potential, but we’re still not there yet. They’re still, still working those kinks out, but yeah, if they can do it, it’s going to be huge.

So the whole conversation sounds very, um, early to me and I’m interested in revisiting this topic and I think we’ll have an opportunity to do so in the future.

So viewers, listeners, what do you think? Jump into the comments, let us know. And don’t forget, if you want to support the podcast, you can go wherever it was you found us, go to YouTube, go to Google, Spotify, wherever it was you listened to us, leave a comment, don’t forget to subscribe, and please do share it with your friends, all of that really does help, and if you’d like to support the show directly, please Go to stilltbd.

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