Ever see that video of the Tachoma Narrows Bridge getting torn apart by the wind? It’s called aeroelastic flutter, and it just might be the key to small scale wind power.

Most wind generators, going back hundreds of years to those classic windmills which used to line the Dutch countryside, rotate. Like a propeller, fan or helicopter blade (which is really just a spinning set of wings). They capitalize off lift, which is one aerodynamic force, but not the only one. This works very well on large scales, like 3-storey wind turbines.

The smaller you go, though, the harder it gets to spin it efficiently. Ordinary ball bearings can work very well in large turbines, but with tiny ones, even expensive high-tech bearings often still slow things down too much to make power generation practical.

So, while trying to find a way to power cheap LED lights in Haiti, a student found a way to harness wind power without bearings. Using a thin band of plastic which flutters in the wind to bounce magnets and coils around, he developed a system which can power a simple LED light system or charge a cell phone for about $5

This talk, a lecture from Google Tech on youtube, is a talk by him which goes into a lot of the interesting possibilities this brings up, as well as the history of his invention. And although there’s a few parts which are a little obnoxiously capitalist, he gives a lot of insight into the big breakthroughs which are now coming from small groups developing sustainable solutions for the third world.