Certain mythologies have always surrounded the phenomena of lightning—a symbol of power, speed, or heavenly influence. During a thunderstorm, though, the ingredients for lightning are relatively simple. A bumper car effect of water droplets occurs, separating positive and negative charges, thus producing an electrical field. And if the conditions are right, a bolt of electric current flashes.
Now take the world of Harry Potter on the other hand, where the “Summoning Charm” is referred to as Accio. From the imaginative pages of J. K. Rowling, this wizardly spell causes an object at a distance to fly into one’s arms, and apparently it’s one of the oldest spells in wizarding society.
Two different connotations, one defined by science and the other by fantasy, have now been merged by a renewable energy technology startup that is looking to redefine the meaning of wind power. And despite deriving its name from a Harry Potter spell, the Ann Arbor, Michigan, company is not relying on magic to produce results, but rather innovative theories on hydroelectricity that have been tested over decades.
Accio Energy uses wind power to produce energy, with systems placed solely offshore and without the windmill components of traditional turbines. Still in development, Accio’s electrohydrodynamic (EHD) wind energy system generates electricity utilizing the same ingredients that cause lightning: wind and charged water mist. Essentially, wind separates positive and negative charges as it moves the charged water mist through what resembles a solar panel, which then creates direct current electricity. The generator itself is composed of flat panels that are assembled primarily of hollow, mass-produced tubes.
Perhaps the only similarity between the Harry Potter spell and Accio, aside from the name, is that both concepts are some of the oldest known in their respective fields. The theory of using charged water droplets to harness energy, in fact, dates back to the late 1960s. “We read up on it and realized that nobody made it work,” says Dawn White, founder and chief technology officer. “We decided we would step forward and make it work.”
White, who has a PhD in mechanical engineering, founded the company in 2008. She then brought in chief executive officer Jen Baird, who comes from a consulting and banking background, to operate the business side of Accio’s science. The dynamic duo now “divide and conquer” the excessive amount of work needed to get a startup off the ground as they’re pioneering a new path to wind power generation. “Dawn focuses heavily on trying to get the technology to work and I try to help keep us funded to do that,” Baird says with a laugh.
In order to harness this technology, White and Baird say two pieces were essential for the company: smart people and modeling. Forty years ago, scientists were not equipped with the computer models that are available now. Today’s technology allows for visualizing otherwise invisible forces such as charged mist, electric fields, and wind—the essential pieces for making Accio’s wind power a reality.
Baird says there are two main advantages to Accio wind energy as opposed to traditional wind turbines: lower manufacturing cost and a higher capacity factor . The wind systems have up to a 40 percent higher capacity than wind turbines, resulting in a 40 percent increase in energy generation. Aside from ease of transportation compared to traditional wind turbines, Accio’s technology also poses no threat to wildlife and is radar-friendly. The company’s wind systems can also be developed using automotive manufacturing technologies and cost structure, which Baird says will help improve the local economy and provide jobs in the near future.
“Up until very recently, we’ve primarily had to build our prototypes in maker shops and by hand, but we are now moving into identifying suppliers in the area that can do the kind of processes that they use for automotive manufacturing to develop and make parts for our prototypes,” Baird explains. “Ultimately, they’ll do smaller and then larger scale manufacturing when we get to that point. It’s really about taking this technology that can be done at large scale very efficiently and using many of the same processes that you have in automotive manufacturing.”
White, who is a former technical specialist for Ford Motor Company, estimates a facility the size of an automotive assembly plant could produce at least 4,000 panels a day. “One of the things that really interested me about this technology was the notion at the time that the auto industry was cratering, and people were losing their jobs, including people in my own family,” White says. “Part of what I saw with this was the chance to help people get back to work in automotive.”
Eight years ago when Accio was founded, the tech startup landscape was dismal in Detroit and the surrounding area, but today that scene is becoming more vibrant with tech talent, including young entrepreneurs looking to make an impact on the city. “When I was founding my last company and even when Dawn was founding this one, Detroit was in a sad state of affairs,” Baird recalls. “It was really struggling under tremendous financial burdens, and I think the bankruptcy process has really helped to reposition Detroit for a lot of growth and there’s been an enormous amount of good things happening. It’s bringing life back into Southeast Michigan where it wasn’t that way before.”
Accio Energy is now gearing up to test its prototype off the coast of Maine thanks to a recent $4.9 million award from ARPA-E, which is funding the collaboration between the Ann Arbor startup and the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center. The test will also help validate a transformative LCOE model of the full-scale design.
“We’re an eleven-person team at this stage and we’re just focused on trying to get the technology to work robustly,” Baird says. “The whole point of this is to be able to cut costs out of the actual wind-harvesting business, and we think we can cut up to half the cost of an offshore wind farm using this approach as opposed to wind turbines. We think there’s a lot of merit to doing this for the planet as a whole.”