If you’ve ever taken a road trip across the Midwest, you’ve probably seen them: row after row of giant white windmills.

Maybe you’ve even called them “windmills” yourself. But they’re not exactly windmills - they’re actually wind turbines.

Even if you didn’t know the technical name for them, you probably are aware of what are wind turbines used for: harvesting and converting wind energy into electricity.

If you want to know more about how these machines work, let’s start with what a turbine is, the different parts of one, and how they work together to use that wind energy for our benefit.

And then, we’ll look at the different kinds of wind turbines - there are more than you might think!

What is a wind turbine?

The purpose of a wind turbine is, of course, to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels when creating energy. This means we have cleaner energy, less material waste, and a lower impact on our environment.

The basis of a wind turbine is simple: use the kinetic energy of the wind that pushes the blades of the turbine (like the blades of a fan) to spin a motor inside the turbine. That motor then converts this kinetic energy into electrical energy. We store that electrical energy and consumers can use it to power their homes.

While a simple process, it is also extremely flexible. We’ve been able to adapt this process in smaller ways, like in boats and traffic signs. But, as we’ve already discussed, it has also been expanded for entire communities to use wind farms for power.

The goal of wind turbines is to overhaul the way that we produce our energy, and it has proven to be incredibly effective.

How do wind turbines work?

Any turbine - not just a wind turbine - has blades that spin around and catch kinetic energy. This can be done in a liquid or a gas. Jet engines, hydroelectric power plants, and even the simpler windmills are all forms of turbines that accomplish the same result.

The massive blades on the front of a wind turbine - the most visible part of the machine - are specifically the “turbine” part of the machine. Each blade is curved in a very specific way. Much like the airfoil wings on an airplane that maximize the efficiency of the flight, the blades on a wind turbine are designed to function as efficiently as possible as well.

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Wind blows past the blades of a turbine, and as you have seen, the blades begin to spin. As the wind meets that resistance, it loses some of its kinetic energy. But the turbine blades gain that energy. The energy is transferred to the machine, which is exactly what we want to happen.

The larger the turbine blades, the more kinetic energy they can absorb from the wind. This means a larger turbine will generate more energy. Faster winds can, as you can imagine, help create more energy as well. This is due to the fact that faster winds turn the blades faster.

But this energy multiplies even more than you think. When the wind spins the blades twice as fast, that does not mean you merely generate twice as much power. In fact, those blades could potentially generate eight times as much energy.

When you burn a fossil fuel, like coal, the amount of energy generated is rather consistent. But with a wind farm, the energy production varies. That’s because wind speed can vary all the time - even throughout a typical day.

In order to stabilize this energy supply, many turbines are linked together into a wind farm, and multiple wind farms can also be connected together into a power grid.

The different types of wind turbines.

In the wind energy industry today, there are two main types of wind turbines that are in use.

The first - and most common - type of wind turbine is the horizontal axis wind turbine. This is likely what you are picturing when I mention a “wind turbine”. The shaft of the turbine is horizontal, and the blades run perpendicular to the shaft. The resulting design looks like a giant fan. Most major wind farms and even solo wind turbines typically employ the horizontal axis wind turbine.

The second type - and much less common - is the vertical axis wind turbine. As you would probably guess, a vertical axis turbine is the opposite of the horizontal axis turbine. The blades, then, spin horizontally. There are lots of different variations on this type of wind turbine. One of the main benefits of this design is that maintenance is generally a little easier because the major components are more accessible.
The vertical axis wind turbine comes in many different variations. Some of them are the earliest designs for wind turbines - developed decades ago, in some cases. While many are no longer in use today, some of these designs have been updated to be both more efficient and more reliable.

  • The Darrieus Wind Turbine: This is a unique turbine that creates its own internal force of wind. That means it can spin at high speeds regardless of the wind speed. Unfortunately, this also means this turbine usually requires an external motor to get started, meaning it is not as self sufficient as other models.
  • Giromill: Similar to the Darrieus Wind Turbine, this turbine has a slightly different blade design and an “H”-shaped rotor. Other than the design differences, it runs on the same principles.
  • Cycloturbine: This is an improvement on the previous two designs. The blade can rotate around its center axis, along with the usual spin motion. It generates the most amount of power, but it can also self-start without external assistance.
  • Savonious Wind Turbine: The blades on this turbine are curved in an “S” shape. This design creates less drag, however they do not generate much energy.
  • Vortexis Wind Turbine: The most recent design developed by special forces in the Middle East, this turbine powers devices in Afghanistan and Iraq. Each turbine has two sets of blades - a smaller set that sits in a circle, and a bigger set in a larger circle surrounding the smaller blades. The larger blades catch the wind and spin, but also create their own wind that spins the smaller set of blades, multiplying the amount of energy generated.

Of course, you don’t need to remember all of these. But the important thing to note is that the energy industry is working hard to maximize wind energy so that it can be developed into more of a mainstream energy source: more reliable, safer, and more productive.