The WOW factor

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Let’s face it: moving a wind-powered vehicle straight into the wind is no easy feat. Sailors have grappled with this problem for as long as sails and boats have been used in tandem, usually with limited results. Given enough tweaking, millions of dollars, and the best sails on Planet Earth, America’s Cup Class boats can sail tight, close-winded angles, but they still can’t sail dead to windward.

Enter the Ventomobile, a land-based, three-wheeled craft designed by Jan Lehmann and Alexander Miller, aerospace-engineering students at Germany’s Stuttgart University. The two wiz kids entered the Ventomobile in Holland’s 2008 Racing Aeolus, a race for wind-powered craft, which they won.

The Ventomobile is powered by a large carbon-fiber rotor mounted above the craft’s cockpit. The concept is simple: the wind spins the rotors, which in turn spin a series of gears driving a bicycle-style transmission. In order for the Ventomobile to move, the rotor must face into the breeze, so the cockpit is equipped with a tackle system that the driver uses to pivot the rotor assembly with each “header” or “lift”; the driver steers via foot pedals. So far the Ventomobile has hit top speeds of roughly 15 mph, but Lehmann and Miller are planning a 2.0 version that should be faster. Interestingly, Lehmann and Miller had to shape the rotor blades to strike a balance between positive forward thrust and drag induced by the spinning rotor.

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