BREAKING NEWS - The story you are about to read is of Jay Harman’s Lily Impeller. It is a pump rotor in the shape of a lily, a revolutionary model nowadays used to propel boats, stir water and cool computers. There are only three original Lily Impellers in the world. One is in the permanent exhibit at the New York’s Museum of Modern Art, one is in a private collection and the third was donated by Jay Harman to The Intelligent Optimist Holiday Auction to further the work of The Intelligent Optimist. Which means, you can become its owner right now: http://tinyurl.com/a2nnlty
Birds of prey can effortlessly circle in the sky without flapping their
wings. An albatross can travel hundreds of miles with scarcely a beat of its wings. Hang gliders can do the same. They all ride on thermal air currents, created by reflected heat from the Earth below.
The sun’s heat is absorbed in different ways by different surfaces. A forest, for example, absorbs more heat than rocks or sand. Nature dissipates this surface heat back into the upper atmosphere through spinning convection currents that form a vortex. Through this mechanism, temperatures and climates have remained stable for thousands of years.
But this delicate balance is imperiled because of rising CO2 levels. The CO2 traps a disproportionate amount of reflected heat, and nature can’t restore the balance through convection currents. Nature tries to restore the balance a different way: with increasingly violent hurricanes that dissipate excess heat by force. Scientists have noted a correlation between the rise in sea-surface temperatures (due, at least in part, to global warming) and the increase in the number and intensity of hurricanes. But hurricanes are hardly a desirable way to stabilize the climate. They are uncontrolled, destructive and random. Is there a way to copy and accelerate nature’s kinder, gentler way of cooling the planet?
Australian naturalist Jay Harman thinks there is. His company, Pax Scientific, in San Rafael, California, has created a technology that mimics a convection current vortex that can cool the planet, thus mitigating global warming. Harman, 60, has spent almost 50 years observing natural vortices to find ways to improve the design of industrial products like fans and pumps. As far-fetched as the idea of a planetary vortex system may sound, he believes this solution is simply a logical career move.
As a boy, Harman noticed that objects in nature never move in straight lines. “All movement is radial,” he says. “There is no such thing as a straight line.” To prove his point, he says, lift one hand in front of you and inscribe a circle in the air with your finger. As you do this, the Earth is spinning on its axis and moving through space at 18.5 miles per second. The solar system as a whole is barreling through space at 137 miles per second. So by the time your circle is complete, you and the planet will have spiraled more than 137 miles through space. From that perspective, Harman says, “Your circle looks like an expanded, uncoiling spring that is more than 137 miles long.”
The spiral is nature’s favorite form. All fluids and gases flow in spirals. Trees and plants grow in spirals. The blood in our veins circulates in spirals, just like the whirlpool that forms above the drain in a bathtub. The same spirals are visible in seashells, in rock formations, in the -patterns of rivers and tornadoes. Even when we force fluids to flow in straight lines, in water pipes or through stents in arteries, the residue left behind always forms spiraling shapes.
All spirals follow the same geometric law, known as the Golden Proportion. The ratio among the radii of these spiraling circles—called phi, after the ancient Greek Phidias, designer of the Parthenon—remains constant. Phi, like pi, is an irrational number, meaning it cannot be fully calculated. Nevertheless, phi is essential to mathematics and physics. Leonardo da Vinci showed man’s phi proportions in his famous Vitruvian Man.
“When the whole universe moves and grows according to the Golden Proportion, why is it that modern science is not studying the vortex?” Harman asks. “I am amazed that so little is understood about what is obviously a fundamental building block of the universe. Nothing happens except by means of it. It is the most efficient way for all energy to move. We should just accept that after 15 billion years of experimentation, trial and error and adaptation, nature has probably evolved the most efficient streamlining method possible. It should be our highest priority to study and understand it.”
The vortex hasn’t been a popular mechanism in industry. “Engineers don’t build to the geometry of the vortex,” Harman says. “The world is full of straight pipes, something nature never uses. This results in inefficiency, noise, wear and erosion.” Refrigeration and air-conditioning systems are about 25 percent energy efficient; the internal combustion engine is about 25 percent to 30 percent efficient; a cheap fan is about 6 percent efficient. A typical ship’s propeller does much better, about 45 percent to 60 percent efficient, not counting the terribly inefficient engine that turns it. “All are miracles of ingenuity,” Harman says, “but appallingly wasteful of energy.”
Harman took it upon himself to change that. His biggest success so far is a vortex-inspired design to mix water in storage tanks to keep it suitable for drinking. Harman’s machine is so successful at keeping water fresh that reductions in the use of chemicals (such as chlorine) of 80 percent to 100 percent can be achieved. The shell-shaped device is about the size of an adult hand, uses 150 watts of power and can easily mix up to 7 million gallons of water in a single vortex. Pax is currently installing the mixer in drinking water facilities across the U.S.
The success of the water mixer got Harman thinking about global warming. He realized that the principle of the water mixer and the planet’s cooling system are the same: Various layers (of water and air respectively) need to circulate constantly to dispose of contaminants, regulate temperature and ensure freshness. If a tiny machine can successfully mix millions of gallons of water, can a similar device be constructed to perform the same service for the atmosphere? Harman’s answer: Of course it can.
Using computer modeling, researchers at Pax Scientific and Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, confirmed that an appropriately modified 747 aircraft engine could create a vortex that would regulate the atmosphere across an area six miles (10,000 meters) high and 31 miles (50 kilometers) wide. Strategically placed, a series of these vortices could redistribute heat and help combat climate change. “I imagine we would place one in the Himalayas,” Harman says, “to preserve glaciers that supply almost one-third of humanity’s drinking water. I have no doubt that this works. This is what nature does. We apply it and it works.”
Still, there are challenges, he admits. For one, how do you turn off a vortex? Vortices continue for a very long time, even after the power source has been switched off. And how do you keep a vortex under control? If, for example, a vortex cut loose from its source, it could wreak havoc, just like a hurricane. One potential solution is to create a second vortex nearby that would cancel out the first. Computer modeling shows that this approach just might work. The same technique could be used to defuse tornados or divert hurricanes.
Harman is convinced challenges like these can be overcome, and vortices can be used to do more than protect vulnerable places against the impact of global warming. They could potentially be used for another kind of climate change: bringing rain to arid or drought-stricken regions. He cautions, however, that the technology would need to be carefully implemented and controlled by a global authority, so significant disruptions to normal weather patterns did not occur. “If you create a vortex above the warm waters of the Arabian Gulf, you could bring saturated humid air above deserts,” Harman says. “It would cause rain. We could turn the Sahara back into the lush environment it once was.”
That vision touches the heart of Harman’s mission. His goal is just as much about poverty alleviation as it is about climate change protection. That’s why he named his company Pax, Latin for “peace.”
Says Harman, “If the weather were massage-able, we could reduce weather extremes, rehabilitate deserts and produce more and cheaper food. If rain could be summoned as needed, there would be less reliance on dams.”
He is clear, though, that it will take more than a handful of vortices to save the planet. A dramatic reduction in energy use and a switch to renewable energy is absolutely essential, he says, but the effects of climate change will be with us for decades all the same. The potential of his technology is to mitigate the large atmospheric effects of climate change and buy the planet some time while other critical fixes come online. Some may think his ideas are crazy. But given the state of the planet, Harman says, “What is worse is not to try.” – Jurriaan Kamp
Photograph: Peter DaSilva