Chase is developing an inch-thick material that generates electricity from slow-moving wind. The sheets of material could be placed anywhere the wind is stirring—on the rooftops and walls of buildings, inside subway tunnels, in the downdraft of wind turbines, and on highway medians.
What is Chase, an aerodynamicist and electrical engineer working for the shadowy outfit that designed the U-2, F-111, and F-22, doing in the middle of a program that is in the hands of Lockheed's new Environment, Safety and Health division? It started with a project to generate electricity for high-altitude, long endurance aircraft from the separated airflow over the wings. The program seems stalled—"you don't want to induce drag and cost more power than you generate," Chase says. But the ferroelectric system itself proved out. Now he's out of the shadows and into the green energy business.
The key to the system is the motion of a conductor through a thin layer of material that has spontaneous electric polarization (called ferroelectric, even though it has nothing to do with iron). The moving air wiggles a conductor, which generates a charge by moving between the poles. Or, as Chase puts it, "we are leveraging a stable dipole moment."
Many of these materials are crystals, which could make the system expensive. But less powerful, more affordable manmade options exist. The next step for the project is to choose the most efficient design. There are two options: a thin membrane that flutters in the air, or a series of fingers that tip and vibrate when the air moves.
Chase himself comes off as being a little more romantic than many engineers. He cites wind installation artist as an influence. "I lean toward the artistic," Chase says. "I'm interested in something that looks good."