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Professor sees answers in the wind

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POTSDAM — Kenneth D. Visser has a vision for a different energy future.


In an ideal world, he'd like to see a small wind turbine in every American yard, solar arrays on each roof and smaller cars powered either by biodiesel or electricity in every driveway — hopefully sooner rather than later.


"A lot of mindset changes and paradigm shifts need to happen," the associate professor of mechanical and aeronautical engineering admits.


With the knowledge that there likely will be an energy crisis in his students' lifetimes if not in his, Mr. Visser has been studying ways to make small wind turbines more efficient. Many of his colleagues at Clarkson University are researching more technologies and business models that could make a greener future a reality.


So in an effort to support those efforts, Mr. Visser recently founded the college's Center for Sustainable Energy Systems.


"Energy is probably the No. 1 most important issue on the planet. Cultures rise and fall on the availability of energy," he said. "The whole idea is really to bring all of our energy research under one banner."


The center supports research by more than 40 faculty members across the university, seeking to create new approaches to energy education, biofuels, hydrogen cells, solar energy, wind power, efficiency and more. Clarkson hopes that CSES will become a forum for researchers to exchange ideas and generate concepts for innovative projects that could be implemented locally, nationally or internationally.


"There are people from all over different departments who work on this problem. You can look at it from a technology point of view, from an economic point of view," Mr. Visser said. "Wind is just one part of the picture."


With a background in applied aerodynamics, Mr. Visser has worked for Boeing and NASA. Since he joined Clarkson in 1998, he has studied ways to make small wind turbines more effective at capturing the energy in passing breezes.


"In the real world, wind doesn't come at you from one direction and stay there. The big turbines offshore are 50 to 51 percent effective, and they're managed all the time," he said. "Smaller ones are less effective and we can't expect to monitor them all the time, so how can we make them more efficient?"


So the professor and his students have researched whether a six-bladed design is more efficient than the typical three-bladed turbine. They've tried "wilder" strategies, too, like making prototypes of turbines with blades that spin simultaneously in opposite directions, Mr. Visser said.


He even is working with a student on a design for a wind turbine-powered hot water space heater that could look and function much like a wood stove.


"People say they don't like the look of wind turbines. Fair enough. There's Picassos out there that I don't like very much, either. But let's talk about the pollution a coal plant produces," Mr. Visser said. "Global warming is the more serious crisis. How are we going to combat that?"


For his part, Mr. Visser walks or bikes the two miles to school almost every day and has not turned on the lights in his window-view office for the past 10 years. Many other people at the north country's colleges are taking similar steps.


Mr. Visser said he hopes he and his Clarkson colleagues will be able to bring their ideas to their neighbors through improved green technologies and industries. The Center for Sustainable Energy Systems is just one way to do that.


"It's a pretty cool thing to see all kind of people doing this. Hopefully the goal is not just visibility but providing a framework to help faculty members and students do their work," he said. "I mean, this is super important. Energy underpins our whole society. We need to have something like this at Clarkson."





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