Floating wind turbines bring electricity where it's needed

February 4, 2015 by Cecile Gonzalez
Most wind turbine manufacturers are competing to build taller turbines to harness more powerful winds above 500 feet, or 150 meters. Altaeros is going much higher with their novel Buoyant Airborne Turbine: the BAT. The Altaeros BAT can reach 2,000 feet, or 600 meters. Credit: Altaeros Energies

It's a balloon that lifts a wind turbine. That's the easiest way to describe the technology being developed by Altaeros Energies, led by Ben Glass, inventor and CEO of the young company. Glass has reimagined the possibilities of balloon and airship technology to lift a wind turbine.

Aiming high

Most wind turbine manufacturers are competing to build taller turbines to harness more powerful winds above 500 feet, or 150 meters. Altaeros is going much higher with their novel Buoyant Airborne Turbine—the BAT. The Altaeros BAT can reach 2,000 feet, or 600 meters.

At this altitude, wind speeds are faster and have five to eight times greater power density. As a result, the BAT can generate more than twice the energy of a similarly rated tower-mounted turbine.

The BAT's key enabling technologies include a novel aerodynamic design, custom-made composite materials, and an innovative control system. The helium-inflatable shell channels wind through a lightweight wind turbine. The shell self-stabilizes and produces aerodynamic lift, in addition to buoyancy. Multiple high-strength tethers hold the BAT in place and a single conductive tether transmits power to a mobile ground station.

The BAT's automated control system ensures safe and efficient operation, the highlight of which is the capability to adjust altitude autonomously for optimal power output. The first BAT model is approximately 15 by 15 meters, is containerized, and does not require a crane or foundation for installation.

The key enabling technologies include a novel aerodynamic design, custom-made composite materials, and an innovative control system. The helium-inflatable shell channels wind through a lightweight wind turbine, self-stabilizes, and produces aerodynamic lift, in addition to buoyancy. Multiple high strength tethers hold the BAT in place and a single conductive tether transmits power to a mobile ground station. Credit: Altaeros Energies

Reaching customers

Diesel generators are the standard in power generation for rural and off-grid areas. However, diesel fuel is expensive to deliver to these locations, and diesel generators, though inexpensive to install, are expensive to operate and maintain.

As a result, remote customers typically pay more than 30 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity. The BAT has the potential to bring affordable wind energy to these communities and industries. The first model will provide enough electricity for a small community, or about a dozen American homes.

Combined with significant increases in energy output and the ability to install the unit in 24 hours, the BAT substantially reduces the cost of energy and time to reach customers' energy needs. In the future, Altaeros expects to deploy the BAT alongside first responders in emergency response situations when access to the electric grid is unavailable.

Remote customers typically pay over $0.30/kWh USD for electricity. The BAT has the potential to bring affordable wind energy to these communities and industries. The first model will provide enough electricity for a small community, or about a dozen American homes. Credit: Altaeros Energies

Much like other tethered balloons, the Altaeros BAT can lift communication, Internet and sensory equipment alongside the turbine to provide additional services for customers. The addition of payload equipment does not affect the BAT's performance.

Scaling up

Altaeros was founded in 2010 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The company has received NSF Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants (Phase I and Phase II) to test a novel low-cost, high-performance fabric suitable for the BAT's shell, and to develop its modular wind turbine for power performance and ease of installation.

Much like other tethered balloons, the Altaeros BAT can lift communication, Internet and sensory equipment alongside the turbine to provide additional services for customers. The addition of payload equipment does not affect its performance. Credit: Altaeros Energies

Altaeros recently received Series A funding of $7 million dollars for the continued development and commercialization of its technology.

"The new products being developed by the team at Altaeros are exciting because they have the potential to offer a new method for energy generation which is portable, reliable, quick to deploy, and environmentally-friendly," said Ben Schrag, NSF SBIR program director. "This technology has the potential to avoid many of the key challenges facing traditional ."

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31 comments

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KBK
5 / 5 (4) Feb 04, 2015
An earlier article had a comment about using hydrogen instead of increasingly rare helium, as the lift component. The problem with hydrogen, is not just flammability, but the inability to make materials that are resistant to hydrogen loss.

Hydrogen can leak right through metals,and can also have sparking issues. The differential in charge between the ground and a spinning generator (wrapped in plastic!) set up high like that, can be quite, er, great, with regard to build and drain issues.

Differential in charge, high leakage, safety concerns, etc. these combine, at this stage of the game, to make helium the only real choice. If the technology becomes established in some way, then start taking shots at using hydrogen.

To do it now, this early in the development game... is to risk loss in confidence, as contrary parties, like oil interests and so on, will take pot shots at weak points, as that is what short sighted sociopaths do.

rhfield
1 / 5 (1) Feb 04, 2015
Cool! But, how do you utilize these in airspace where planes might be flying?
Uncle Ira
3 / 5 (6) Feb 04, 2015
Cool! But, how do you utilize these in airspace where planes might be flying?


Well Skippy, I'm going to take a wild guess on that one. You don't.
TailDragger9
4.5 / 5 (2) Feb 04, 2015
As a pilot, I can weigh in here...

Cool! But, how do you utilize these in airspace where planes might be flying?


"airspace where planes might be flying" is *all* airspace over the U.S. (except for a very few prohibited areas) any obstructions to aerial navigation need, by law, to appear on the aeronautical charts - which can be a bit complicated with the idea of a tethered balloon. Also, the areas where these would most likely be used (remote areas) are also the most likely to have uncontrolled airspace all the way up to 14,000 feet, meaning any pilots would have no help from ATC in dodging these things... I hope they make them *really* visible.

All in all - I think these generators are a really cool idea - but they're going to give the FAA a big headache if they start deploying them, and the FAA will, in turn pass the headaches on to everyone else.
bobc896
1.7 / 5 (6) Feb 04, 2015
One question remains a potential disaster for flying a kite in electrical storms.
How will the system fair if struck by lightening?
It all sounds good on paper till nature ZAPS it back to reality. One lightening bolt is very likely to not only fry it's control systems but will most likely burn off it's tethers and it's power down link cables as well. Was Ben Franklin's kite experiment not enough to make the creator of this project have some respect for the power of lightening?
Or will the system have to be hauled in to a hanger during storm activity?
The second question is what of static discharge from the potential between ground & atmospheric potentials?
Nothing was said about how it will deal with these problems.
Eikka
1.8 / 5 (6) Feb 04, 2015
They're not going to be a permanent solution anywhere for two reasons:

1. High upkeep costs, storms, prevent permanent installation.

2. While greater altitude allows for 5-8 times the power density, a standing tower allows for 500-800 times greater effective turbine area compared to the floating balloon, delivering a couple magnitudes more energy per unit cost.

A turbine built on top of a tower can be simply so much larger because it doesn't need to lift itself in the air, and it isn't anchored to the ground with dainty wires that snap with buffeting winds.
the-truth-seeker
1.6 / 5 (7) Feb 04, 2015
Total waste of money that could be better used for development of other technologies, like wave energy, or better batteries! How do stupid ideas like this get funding, when many better ideas don't? There are so many problems with this I don't know where to begin. Keep these filled with lots and lots of limited supply (and expensive) helium? Really?! That's going to make it inexpensive? Looks like an idea high school kids came up with.
mau_pham
2 / 5 (2) Feb 04, 2015
If this balloon can reach the cloud, it might be able to generate electricity from static in the cloud (therefore prevent lightning) as well as to generate electricity from wind.
deshan_baptiste
5 / 5 (1) Feb 04, 2015
Can this be used as a means of low cost energy production for planetary migrations?

If you have wind patterns that can be predicted on a planet like Mars, can we setup 100-1000 of these to provide the power to begin a basic settlement?

That'd be way cool...
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.4 / 5 (10) Feb 04, 2015
One question remains a potential disaster for flying a kite in electrical storms.
How will the system fair if struck by lightening?

One lightening bolt is very likely to not only fry it's control systems but will most likely burn off it's tethers and it's power down link cables as well. Was Ben Franklin's kite experiment not enough to make the creator of this project have some respect for the power of lightening?
Or will the system have to be hauled in to a hanger during storm activity?
The second question is what of static discharge from the potential between ground & atmospheric potentials?
Nothing was said about how it will deal with these problems.
Well a more ominous question is how all the current aircraft and blimps and weather balloons deal with this problem. Holy cow!! Maybe all engineers everywhere are too stupid to have thought of this.

Or maybe you're just a baiting troll. Did you consider that?
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.4 / 5 (8) Feb 04, 2015
dainty wires that snap
-Which is why engineers know how to design wires that don't snap.

Jesus. I am detecting an overall senescence of the body of posters on this website. Lay off the dyphenhydramine.
alfie_null
4 / 5 (3) Feb 05, 2015
All in all - I think these generators are a really cool idea - but they're going to give the FAA a big headache if they start deploying them, and the FAA will, in turn pass the headaches on to everyone else.

I don't fly, except as a passenger, hopefully avoiding too much headache. There's an increasing amount of stuff encroaching on the NAS. UASs, for instance. The FAA must be an exciting place to work nowadays. Technology to the rescue? Maybe something like ADS-B that would broadcast the location of turbines and their tethers.
jb5music
1 / 5 (2) Feb 05, 2015
Aaah - I can chime in on this one... Three years ago (That picture up there) they had only built one of these. Now today undoubtedly. (you got it) There's probably only still one. And I can almost guarantee 3 years from now when they can safely asume that everyone's forgotten about this - They'll post another article it and there will still only be...... yep..... one.

The thing about it that was such a good idea before it's obvious quash from some payoff - Is that it's extremely simple to manufacture. A large piece of vinyl or Mylar or whatever for the flotation gondola and then an electric generator and blade in the middle. So by now they could have easily stamped out enough of them for a 10 mile by 10 mile off shore farm several miles out probably in the north east. They could probably go along with an old mine layer and just pin long chains to the ocean bed that lead up to a bouy that they then could fasten these to it. All while the sweeper slowly trolls along . No there'only 1
Lord_jag
5 / 5 (2) Feb 05, 2015
Its a truly brilliant idea in areas where you only need a little bit of energy but solar panels don't work, and you're not so worried about low flying planes... Like the high arctic.
baudrunner
3.5 / 5 (2) Feb 07, 2015
Pure Helium (never really pure - about 88%) costs $5.20/100gm. A 1,000 cubic feet of helium can lift about 60lbs. We will, in the foreseeable future, run out of Helium. These high altitude turbines, if they are going to create wind farms out of them, will influence the cost of Helium, eventually making any venture requiring it a very, very expensive one. Helium is not a replenishable resource. Once it's gone from the Earth, it's gone.
VINDOC
1 / 5 (1) Feb 07, 2015
Imagine that we could use uranium as a fuel. We would not kill rare birds nor destroy the environment. We have a way to do this, but Harry Reid stopped it.
kochevnik
4 / 5 (1) Feb 08, 2015
@VINDOC Imagine that we could use uranium as a fuel. We would not kill rare birds nor destroy the environment. We have a way to do this, but Harry Reid stopped it.
Please. The only birds you care about are Thanksgiving turkey and Kentucky Fried chicken
Returners
1.5 / 5 (4) Feb 08, 2015
Maybe there's a way to use Hot Air to lift the balloon instead of helium.

Perhaps have the turbine power a heating element which will keep the envelope temperature high enough.
Eikka
2 / 5 (4) Feb 08, 2015
Which is why engineers know how to design wires that don't snap.


If they already can, then where's our space elevator?

You seem to have a highly distorted image of what material sciences and engineering can do within the constraints of cost, weight and available mass-manufacturing technology. It's the same thing here as with the SpaceX rocket, where you seem to be under the belief that if engineers and investors are doing it, then it must work as advertised.

Eikka
2.3 / 5 (3) Feb 08, 2015
Well a more ominous question is how all the current aircraft and blimps and weather balloons deal with this problem. Holy cow!! Maybe all engineers everywhere are too stupid to have thought of this.


They don't deal with the problem, because they don't have the problem, since they're not tethered to the ground.

A flying airplane isn't connected to the ground so the path it provides is high impedance and doesn't attract much current. A lightning strike through the tether wire of the blimp is, and will vaporize the tether and send the blimp away, and there's not much you can do against the million amps of a lightning bolt.

So you fly them in fair weather and spool down when the electric potential starts to grow - but that's again one reason why they aren't suitable for permanent installation; they need to be constantly taken down for whatever reason, be it high winds or risk of lightning strike, which increases running costs and decreases energy output.
Returners
2 / 5 (2) Feb 08, 2015
You also want the fabric to be black so as to absorb maximum sunlight during the day to provide heat.
kochevnik
5 / 5 (2) Feb 08, 2015
@Eikka A flying airplane isn't connected to the ground so the path it provides is high impedance and doesn't attract much current. A lightning strike through the tether wire of the blimp is, and will vaporize the tether and send the blimp away, and there's not much you can do against the million amps of a lightning bolt.
Absurd! Lightning bolts can be shorted with thin 1mm wire used in lightning rods. The effects of lightning are local and usually only propagate a hundred meters due to high impedance they create, and much less with proper surge protection standard for decades. I suggest an insulated tether with a wire winding
tritonsecure
1.5 / 5 (2) Feb 08, 2015
This seems like over-kill. Surely it would be far easier to simply lift a sail to that height and collect the energy via the stretching pressure [there must be a better word for this; can't think what it is!] on the tether cables.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (2) Feb 09, 2015
. The problem with hydrogen, is not just flammability, but the inability to make materials that are resistant to hydrogen loss.

Flammability is not really an issue for such contraptions. And it seems like graphene oxide may be an answer to making stuff hydrogen tight (it can make stuff helium tight...which is harder to do).

As for lightning strikes: These craft can be grounded when needed. Meteorology isn't rocket science. It is possible to predict when weather conditions will become such that lightning strikes are a possibility.
Eikka
2.3 / 5 (3) Feb 09, 2015
The effects of lightning are local and usually only propagate a hundred meters due to high impedance they create


How does a lightning "create high impedance"? It ionizes materials along its path, opening up low impedance channels through which the main current strikes. A lightning strike is an insulator breakdown event.

Absurd! Lightning bolts can be shorted with thin 1mm wire used in lightning rods.


The lightning rod provides a pre-made low impedance channel to guide the lightning down to where it does the least harm. A 1mm wire will vaporize instantly if hit by the main discharge.

I suggest an insulated tether with a wire winding


You forget that these wires are already carrying electrical current for the turbine, so all the electronics in the turbine are at or near ground potential, which makes them a huge lightning attractor anyways. Insulating the wires along their surfaces guides the lightning to strike the turbine first.
Eikka
3.7 / 5 (3) Feb 09, 2015
Meteorology isn't rocket science. It is possible to predict when weather conditions will become such that lightning strikes are a possibility.


It's as simple as measuring the voltage difference at the end of the tether. The strikethrough voltage for air is about 3 million volts per meter, so if the voltage difference between the grounded tether and the surrounding air starts to approach that, better winch it down quickly.

The voltage difference between the cloud and the ground starts to "tear" a channel through the air, that grows from both ends by ionizing air molecules which makes the air conductive. As the tendrils of ionized air reach towards each other, they bring the two potentials closer and closer, which increases the gradient between them (V/m), which causes faster and faster breakdown until the tendrils touch and the main bolt strikes through.

The growth of ionized tendrils from the ground is virtually the same as raising a conductive wire in the air.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (2) Feb 09, 2015
It's as simple as measuring the voltage difference at the end of the tether. The strikethrough voltage for air is about 3 million volts per meter

I was thinking more in terms of weather radar which tells you hours (for larger fronts days) in advance. Certainly much earlier than any appreciable voltage difference would show up.
teslaberry
not rated yet Feb 09, 2015
stuff like this is why kleiner perkins is going out of business.

google is also investing is stupid shit like this by another name.

windmills and wind collection WILL NEVER be a particularly high tech and effective form of scaling electricity production.

i'm not saying conventional windfarms are not good investments for the long run. they simply are not an energy revolution as they cannot scale. they're a small , yet nice part of the mix.

adding to the stupidity of venture capital investment in 'revolutionary' windturbines are projects like this, and even stupider, tidal/current power projects which are undewater wind turbines, an even dumber idea.

solar power , however is an entirely different story.
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.3 / 5 (3) Feb 09, 2015
Which is why engineers know how to design wires that don't snap.


If they already can, then where's our space elevator?
What does designing tethers for the above contraption have to do with a space elevator? I expect an answer. Take yor time.
You seem to have a highly distorted image of what material sciences and engineering can do within the constraints of cost, weight and available mass-manufacturing technology. It's the same thing here as with the SpaceX rocket, where you seem to be under the belief that if engineers and investors are doing it, then it must work as advertised
You seem to think that designing tethers for the above contraption somehow equates to designing a space elevator. How come?

Perhaps you are just not aware of what engrs have already provided us with.

"The aerostats are large fabric envelopes filled with helium, and can rise up to an altitude of 15,000 feet (4,600 m) while tethered by a single cable"
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.3 / 5 (3) Feb 09, 2015
A lightning strike through the tether wire of the blimp is, and will vaporize the tether and send the blimp away
Please research the aerostat I referenced and explain (in engineering terms) how it avoids the problem.
http://en.wikiped...r_System

-Here is an actual study by actual scientists who were not actually guessing when they wrote it:

"Aerostats electrically connected to earth via conductive
tethers have had more lightning strikes due to their
longer station-keeping roles in more varied weather
conditions. Most of these are no larger than 30 m long,
and their envelopes are also protected with single
conductors along the centerlines. Sometimes these
conductors are elevated from the envelope surface to
minimize fire hazards during lightning strikes to the
conductors."
https://www.nts.c...rall.pdf

-Must have been relatively hard to do without actually guessing eh?
Estevan57
1 / 5 (1) Feb 12, 2015
"Sometimes, tethers have been struck and
severed, with resultant loss of the aerostat."

Same source, two sentences later.

Obviously the engineers were inadequate. At least it didn't snap.

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