Wind Power Goes Retro
Tom Lombardo posted on June 05, 2013 |
Artist and designer Merel Karhof created factories that harness the wind to run machines directly fr...

Normally I write about new technologies in sustainable energy - some currently in use and others in the R&D stage. But every now and then it’s good to step back and look at the way things used to be done. Today we’ll do both, by checking out a "modern" factory that uses wind energy to power its machines without electricity.

Windmill vs. Wind Turbine

When my students say “windmill” I usually remind them that the term is wind turbine. Windmills were originally used to grind grain (hence the “mill” part of the name) and were later adapted to pump water and run sawmills. The common theme in all of these applications is that wind is converted into rotational energy and then used to rotate a machine. Wind turbines, on the other hand, convert wind to rotational energy and then convert that into much more practical electrical energy. Electricity is easier to transport over long distances, and it can be converted into virtually any form of energy at its point of use.

Energy Conversion

Of course, when you convert one form of energy to another, there are losses. It seems strange to convert rotational energy into electricity, only to go full circle (excuse the pun) by converting it back into rotational energy to run a machine. (There are pragmatic reasons for doing so, as I mentioned above.) Artists, such as Netherlands native Merel Karhof, are less concerned with practicality. Karhof sees the beauty in the machinery and its processes, and decided to show the world the aesthetic side of wind power as well as its utilitarian aspect. (Why should engineers care? Because some people think a wind farm is an eyesore. Maybe a little artistic appreciation for wind power would curb the “NIMBY” mentality.) 

The Factories

In 2010 Ms. Karhof created her Wind Knitting Factory, a knitting machine that's powered by a one meter windmill. (Ha! I almost wrote turbine!) The machine’s speed varies with the wind speed. During an average eight hour day, the machine produces about fifteen meters of knitwear. According to her press release, “Occasionally the knitwear gets ‘harvested’ and transformed into, amongst other things, scarves. Every scarf gets a label that tells the time and date on which the wind knitted the scarf. This mobile wind factory illustrates a production process and it visualizes what you can produce with the present urban wind.” 

Here it is in action:

Going a step further, Karhof designed a set of furniture to be produced entirely from wind-powered machines. She joined forces with a local sawmill and a color mill, both powered directly by the wind. The sawmill cut the wood, the color mill ground materials to produce natural dyes, and Karhof’s own Knitting Factory created the upholstery. It takes less than an hour to produce the upholstery for one chair. She modified her original Knitting Factory design so that it turns away from the wind when it gets too strong, avoiding potential damage to the windmill. The furniture she produced was exhibited at an event called Windworks @ Colourmill 'de Kat' in the Netherlands.

This video shows all three processes and their respective machines:

Here’s the furniture she created:

But Is It Practical?

In modern manufacturing, efficiency and expediency rule. Merel Karhof won’t win any awards in those categories, but that’s not her intent. Instead, she wants to demonstrate the usefulness of things that people often take for granted, such as the wind. I became an engineer not because I was obsessed with efficiency, but because I like working with cool technology. I design things for free; they pay me to design them efficiently. Ms. Karhof’s “Windworks” reminds me that machines are cool, even if they are a bit "retro."

Images and videos: Meril Karhoff Product Design

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