Retired Engineer Creates ‘Natural Horizons’

April 15, 2009  
Filed under Business

By Phyl Newbeck

John LaRue’s Underhill home looks up at Mount Mansfield and the communication towers that line the ridge. He appreciates what those towers do, but he can’t help but think they’re a bit unsightly. Luckily LaRue, a retired engineer, has the time and the background to contemplate the issue and has come up with a potential solution. His fledgling business, Natural Horizons, is trying to use light refraction to make communication towers and wind turbines virtually invisible.
The Indiana born LaRue moved to Vermont in 1969 to take a job with IBM. He retired in 1993 and began to work on his project several years later. Now 72, LaRue is looking for partners for his venture. LaRue recognizes that Vermont’s ridgelines are the ideal place for communication towers and wind turbines. However, such locations make them exceedingly visible and Vermonters, he said, “prefer a more natural view.” So LaRue sought a way to keep broadcast towers and turbines in appropriate high locations, but make the view more attractive.

LaRue chose the company name because it symbolizes exactly what he wants to do. The goal is to camouflage towers so their presence isn’t detectable. LaRue explained that army camouflage is chosen to help soldiers and vehicles blend in to the background of trees, shrubs, grass, etc. “The colors they choose are relevant to the background they are viewed against,” he explained. However, when something is viewed against the horizon, the background is entirely different.

While one thought might be to paint towers blue, LaRue explained that there are three independent aspects of color: hue, saturation (often thought of as vividness) and brightness. Another problem is that the color of the sky changes with weather patterns and with the arc of the sun so there is no uniform color which would be appropriate. Lastly, LaRue said that even if the sky was blue every day, there is one localized spot – the sun – which changes everything. A turbine looks very different on the sunny side than on the shaded side. His plan uses the light from the sky to circulate around a tower so the sunny side and the shaded sides are not viewed differently.

LaRue explained that we see things because of the light that is reflected from objects. This is based on contrast; how the object is different from the background. While LaRue appreciates those who try to make towers look like trees or other natural objects, his idea goes a step further by using a coating to refract the light in such a way as to render them close to invisible.

Naturally, this is not a simple process. The coating must consist of a minimum of three layers. Although a primer may be the first coat, the next coating will be a “diffuse reflective layer” which spreads light in all directions, rather than directly back like a mirror. The middle layer would be made of transparent material which conducts light, but is not a perfectly smooth surface. Microspheres within that layer would change the direction of light coming in so that it comes out at an angle and envelopes the tower, rather than directly projecting the light out. The outside layer, like the innermost part, would also be something with a lower refractive index. LaRue explained that the refractive index of a material defines its ability to allow light to move through it. He compared his plans with the coating for fiber optic cables, which is designed not to allow any light to come out. In contrast, he sees the ideal coating for towers as something akin to a showerhead which allows some, but not all, light to exit.

LaRue concedes that there are some obstacles to his plan. One is that the effectiveness of the coating would be diminished by sharp angles. The coating would work perfectly on the towers themselves, but less effectively on the turbine blades which have one sharp edge and one rounded edge. LaRue does not believe that the light refraction would pose a problem for animals. Birds, particularly migrating birds, generally fly at night when the coating would not be as effective. Likewise, bats are guided by their sense of hearing, which would not be affected by the visibility, or lack thereof, of the towers.

So far, the towers atop Mount Mansfield are just as visible as they used to be. LaRue has patented his ideas, but is looking for a partner in the paint development business. Advances in that industry have made the possibility of his ideas becoming reality much stronger thanks to new coatings which have been developed. Initially, LaRue thought he would need to work with a powder coating, but improvements in wet coatings have convinced him that they will work, as well.

Even technological wizards need a break and LaRue has the perfect antidote to his high tech world. Six years ago, he and his wife planted slightly more than two and one-half acres of blueberries which they open to the public for picking every July. For LaRue, it’s the perfect break from his high-tech world. “Too often,” he said, “the lives of husbands and wives diverge and they don’t share their work experience, but this is something where we work together, rest together, and make decisions together.” But if they tarry too long in the fields, LaRue is likely to look up at the towers atop Mt. Mansfield and return to the house to further hone his plan to render them invisible.


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