by Nora O'Donnell
CEO :: Aerotecture International
In 1965, a young and impressionable engineering student at Michigan State University listened to the visionary architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller give a speech on how technology could, more or less, solve the world's problems. The student was Bil Becker, and the speech changed his life.
Eight years later, an energy crisis hit. Fuller recruited Becker to join a small wind power movement that benefitted mostly farmers beyond the reach of coal-powered generators. Eight years after that, Becker and a team of engineers took it a step further and developed a wind generator for a densely populated area in Evanston.
The invention failed miserably. The propeller turbine was noisy and vibrated so much that it spit bolts in every direction during heavy storms. The future for urban wind turbines looked bleak. "I was the only one who said, Let's try something new," recalls Becker, now 66. "All my other friends said, Forget it; we're going to go do solar."
Twenty-seven years (and many models) later, Becker's persistence has paid off. His company, Aerotecture International, has become one of the few in the world dedicated to urban wind turbines. His latest creation doesn't use propellers, which spin at a high speed and make a lot of noise. Instead, Becker's machine is quiet, efficient, relatively inexpensive, and safe for birds. The beautiful design would make fellow innovators Watson and Crick proud: It bears an uncanny resemblance to a double helix.
Architects have quickly picked up on the virtues of Becker's invention. Last year, Helmut Jahn incorporated a long row of the gentle spirals on the rooftop of his Mercy Housing Lakefront building (1244 North Clybourn Avenue), and Frank and Lisa Mauceri of Smog Veil Records have two turbines powering their new LEED-certified headquarters (and home) in Bucktown.
As is the case with any invention, there is always room for development. Becker already has preliminary designs (that he has shown to Mayor Daley) for lining Chicago's highways with a turbine/solar combo that could power thousands of households. As Fuller would have said, it's a solution, more or less, to a decades-old energy problem: one turbine at a time.
PhotographY: (BECKER) Anna Knott; (WIND TURBINE) Kurt Holtz/Lucid Dream Productions