By Ariel Schwartz
Certainly, Apple's future will always lie in the consumer products industry, but a newly revealed patent shows that the company is somewhat seriously experimenting with technology in other sectors.
A patent application, reported by Apple Insider, filed by Apple in June 2011 for an "On-demand generation of electricity from stored wind energy" tells us that the company is working on a wind turbine that converts rotational energy from turbine blades into heat, which is then stored and used to generate electricity when necessary. Today's turbines often turn kinetic energy from turbine blade rotation directly into mechanical energy or electricity.
Apple describes the benefits of the system in the patent application:
The variable nature of wind may interfere with on-demand generation of electricity from wind energy. For example, fluctuations in wind speed may hamper the adequate production of electricity from wind power during periods of peak demand, or conversely, may produce excess electrical power during periods of low demand. In turn, such variability may limit the ability to incorporate large amounts of wind power into a grid system. For example, other power stations (e.g., coal, natural gas, hydroelectric, nuclear) may be required to offset variations in electricity generated from wind power and maintain reliable electric service in an electrical grid...Hence, what is needed is a mechanism for mitigating variability and/or intermittency associated with the production of electricity from wind energy.
If it's efficient and cheap enough, Apple's turbine system could solve a piece of the renewable energy puzzle (storage) that has prevented intermittent sources like solar power and wind from being used more widely: --in this case, by storing heat in fluid.
So why is Apple interested in wind energy? There's really only one logical explanation: It wants to mitigate the impact of its energy-sucking data centers, which are becoming increasingly important to the company's strategy as people sign up for iTunes or start using iCloud to store their data remotely. The company has already shown interest in doing that--it's building a giant solar farm in North Carolina that will power an adjacent data center, which also uses fuel cells for power. In recent years, Apple also filed patents for hydrogen fuel cell designs that could power its line of gadgets. Just as with consumer electronics, Apple isn't content to just use the status quo technology. It has to invent its own.
Copyright 2013 by Fast Company. Reprinted with permission.