Harnessing the Wind
an interview with Rachel Pizzolato
On a summer trip through the prairies of Texas, Rachel Pizzolato noticed the turbulence caused by her dad’s car. And then she thought that with hundreds of other cars travelling the interstates, a source of potential energy was just waiting to be harvested. But how to do it? Thus began a 2 year (and counting) exploration – experimenting with designs and different material on how to accomplish her goal of harnessing the wind. It would turn into a school science fair project titled “Can a Modified Windmill Generate Electricity in an Interstate Traffic Setting?”
Far from the ubiquitous Plaster-of-Paris volcano or Styrofoam ball solar system, Pizzolato (a 7th grader at John Curtis Christian School) built a Plexiglas tower which encased turbines constructed of K+S Metals brass rod, Bud Nosen balsawood, and Taskboard.
HUB: Let’s start off with the spoiler: You were a 2016 Finalist in the Broadcom Masters national science competition based on your project being one of the top 30 middle school science fair projects in the nation. And you’ve been nominated to participate in the 2017 competition. Your project dealt with creating electricity out of thin air. Could you give a quick explanation as to how it demonstrates that?
Rachel: There are little windmills inside the venturi and when the air from a spacewalk inflator goes through the venturi it powers the windmills while creating electricity to power the light. So basically we’re eliminating fossil fuels and harnessing untapped energy that flows through the buildings that you see every day. We’re gathering the wind that has not been harnessed yet to produce new electricity
HUB: How did you come up with the concept?
Rachel: Actually, many experiences and people are responsible for inspiring this project. In 2012, I went to Long Beach and saw my first wind farm. Seeing those machines spinning in the fields was amazing. I had a long conversation with my parents about the turbines that day. I also noticed how much wind was produced as we drove along the highway. This was the “Eureka” moment when I thought about mounting turbines along the sides of the highway to generate electricity. Since then, I visited the wind capital of North America- Sweetwater, Texas 3 times, and my interest has only increased.
Explaining her project
HUB: And you mentioned that visiting Disney World also gave you ideas?
Rachel: We have visited Disney World every year since I was a baby. The Spaceship Earth attraction has been very instrumental in my design because of the airflow that passes around the structure. It is always very breezy when we pass under the structure, and that is where the idea for my venturi and using the turbines to generate electricity originated. Now, every time I am anywhere around a slope, or a curved surface, I take note of the movement of the air and the possibilities!
Showing what the turbines looked like before assembled
HUB: What was your first version like?
Rachel: I chose to build a modified wind turbine to test if it was possible to generate electricity in an interstate traffic setting. The turbine was constructed using cardboard, glue, copper wire, tape, a discarded bicycle rim and a salvaged 12 volt motor. High tech materials such as carbon fiber blades might have resulted in a more efficient model. However, the purpose of the experiment was to test the concept of producing electricity from the turbulence of a passing vehicle. A compact car was used to drive past the turbine at various speeds, and the voltage output (mV) was noted.
First version: cardboard on a bicycle rim
HUB: How did you record the results before you got the computer system hooked up to it?
Rachael: I used a voltage meter to record the voltage output as my dad’s car passed the turbine at various speeds. I performed many trials at each car speed of 24,32,40,48 and 56 km/h. I was lucky that the meter recorded the highest voltage and allowed me to get accurate readings. Without that feature, I would have had to use the reading that my eyes saw as the highest which would have been difficult because the meter moved very fast. All of my readings were recorded in my journal upon completion of each trial.
The original wind source: dad driving by in his car
HUB: And what did the data show?
Rachel: The data showed that as the speed of the vehicle increased, the voltage output increased in a linear relationship. The voltage (mV) increase occurred for the 90°perpendicular blades (control), as well as, the 30° angular blades. However, the results showed that the 30° angled blades resulted in a small voltage increase (<1 mV) at all speeds except for 56 km/h which produced 3 mV more output. I concluded that it is possible for a turbine to generate electricity from the wind produced by a passing car.
The laptop automatically records the data
HUB: And now that you have a computer system doing the recording?
Rachel: It automatically recorded the data, collecting over 2 million data points while testing blade design and blade angle. I found that a small change in blade angle results in a tremendous increase in efficiency. Overall it’s 9,000 pages of data in the computer.
Demonstrating the project to other middle-school students
HUB: Are there any other places beside the interstate that this technology could be used?
Rachel: It would be beneficial to incorporate such a wind turbine system along a railroad system. By doing so, electricity could be generated along many thousands of miles of the rail system. By utilizing a rail system, the turbine might be increasingly efficient because of the repeatability of the most energy productive trials. Connecting lights and signals in small towns and along desolate highways and roads is very costly and inefficient. The cost to connect and maintain long runs of cable to the closest power station is astronomical, but generating the electricity at the point of use, through turbines driven by the passing train, would potentially reduce costs, increase efficiency, and reduce the use of precious fossil fuel resources.
The windmill turbines – test models had different blade angles
HUB: And I understand that you have plans for airports too.
Rachel: I have been designing a prototype turbine and steam generator venturi to be used in a combine cycle setup to potentially capture the jet exhaust of the 30,000 commercial airline takeoffs (growing everyday) that occur each and every day. The exhaust will not only be used to drive a turbine, but the heat will boil water and use the steam to drive a generator- all connected to battery storage and the grid to be used to power facilities at the airfield and beyond!
Connecting everything up
HUB: You seem to keep improving your design. What plans do you have for the next version?
Rachel: The prototype was designed to test the concept only, therefore only discarded materials were used to construct the model. However, to determine the true feasibility of the idea, I want to incorporate hi-tech materials such as:
- Carbon fiber
- Frictionless bearings
- Carbon nanotubes
- Graphene composites
into my future designs. Also, since blade design is so very important, I want to incorporate biomimicry and design my future blades using things that nature has created over billions of years such as tubercles on humpback whales and the hydrophobic characteristics of the Lotus leaf known as the “Lotus Effect.” It’s taken a long time. The ideas just kept flowing.
Over 2 million data points – 9,000 pages of data – were recorded in the computer
HUB: I mentioned Broadcom Masters at the beginning of the interview. Can you tell me a little about them?
Rachel: Broadcom Masters is the preeminent science fair for grades 6-8. The 30 top students from all over the United States are chosen from over 2500 nominated students throughout the USA. The selection process involves filling out a 35 page entrance form that covers, not only your interest in science, but every aspect of our lives including what we want to do in the future, our interests, sports, hobbies, dreams and desires, and it also contains a large section of essay questions that require us to think and apply the scientific method in order to formulate appropriate answers. The questions all have word limits, so each word is very important and the ideas must be addressed with the utmost care. One of the questions from last year was, “If you could go anywhere in the Universe, where would you go and with whom?”
Close-up of the venturi and measuring instruments
HUB: And what was your answer?
Rachel: I wrote that I would love to sit on the edge of a black hole with Stephen Hawking. I first heard his voice when I was a very small child. It was the computer generated voice that was featured in a Pink Floyd song called “Keep Talking.” My dad had always tried to expand my appreciation for music and the arts. I have been listening to Beethoven since I was a baby, and we rarely miss a rock concert – Def Leppard, Styx, Rush – I have seen them all many times. However, “Keep Talking” caught my attention because of the way the voice sounded towards the end of this song. My dad explained who the voice belonged to, and since then, he has helped me try to understand the theories that Stephen Hawking, as well as Albert Einstein have put forth.
I used to look at Stephen Hawking as most kids would look at him. I did not see the genius who was sitting in that wheel chair. I did not understand that he was one of the most intelligent men in the world- Now, I do! It would be one of the most amazing experiences to sit there on the edge of that black hole and watch as the universe performs its wonders.
I can only imagine the smile on Stephen Hawking’s face as we sit there and watch in awe at the wonders of the universe!
Rachel with science teacher Cathy Boucvalt on WDSU-TV news
HUB: Here’s a question for your dad: What thoughts are going through your mind right now?
Robert: Seeing my daughter’s interest in STEM grow over the years has been quite overwhelming. She has begun to make contacts and develop skills that will follow her throughout her academic career.
We have seen the seeds of her love for alternate energy and turbines of every kind start to grow over the past few years, however, we never would have imagined just how important those fields would become in her young life!
Regardless of whether she wins or loses a particular prize is really not important. What is important is that she is doing what she enjoys, and she is doing it at a level that requires her to think “outside the box!” Every time she presents her experiments, she becomes better at answering questions, and she learns from those who offer advice and criticism. I am very blessed to be able to watch her grow and follow her dreams- No! Create her dreams! It does not come easy, and there are countless days and nights where she does nothing but design and build her ideas. I never put a limit on her when it comes to her work ethic, and to see the passion and drive she possesses, at such a young age, is truly inspiring. I am truly a lucky guy!
Photos by Robert Pizzolato
This video shows the first incarnation of the turbine in action. This was how the project looked when Rachel was in the 6th grade – cardboard attached to a bicycle rim.
A year later, there was a quantum leap in design, material, and electronics. This video shows the 7th grade version.