Famed balloonist proposing huge inflatable solar updraft tower for observatory

November 21, 2013 by Bob Yirka weblog
Solar tower. Credit: drroyspencer

(Phys.org) —Famed balloonist Per Lindstrand (he crossed the Pacific Ocean in one with Richard Branson back in 1991) has told The Engineer that he is proposing a 1km high inflatable solar updraft tower to power the ALMA Observatory in Chile's Atacama Desert.

Solar towers aren't new of course, the idea has been bandied about for over a century. The idea is to draw heat from the sun at the base up inside the where the air current becomes strong enough to turn turbines. A group in Spain built a prototype in the 1980's but it was decommissioned after just 8 years due to wear and tear and rust.

Lindstrand is claiming that the way to go is to forego metal or cement, and construct the tower out of inflatable material—something he knows a lot about of course due to his ballooning background. Building a tower is something on a different order though, it would need to last a lot longer than a balloon to make it cost effective. Lindstrand envisions a coating that would make the flexible skin impervious to weather and UV radiation. He believes such a tower would not only last longer, but would be far cheaper to construct. He says he and his colleagues back at University College in London have calculated that it would cost approximately $750 million to construct a 1km tall solar tower out of cement—but one made of inflatable materials could be constructed for as little as $20 million. A tower like that, he says, would be able to generate 281GWh power annually. It'd be big too, with a base approximately 7km wide.

Lindstrand and his team are currently working on a small proof of concept prototype that will be just 3.5m tall. If that proves successful, they expect to construct one that will be closer to 10 meters tall. Even if the second prototype is successful, however, it's still not clear if the people who would make such a decision for ALMA Observatory would be willing to take such a gamble. Lindstrand notes that the desert environment would be an ideal location for such a tower due to the fine sand in the area that causes problems for traditional solar cell maintenance.

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More information: via The Engineer

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1 / 5 (3) Nov 21, 2013
I don't get it. Is this person affiliated with EnviroMission in any way?


> Lindstrand and his team are currently working on a small proof of concept prototype that will be just 3.5m tall.

3.5m? Seriously?
1.5 / 5 (2) Nov 21, 2013
Will it produce more energy than it consumes in it's construction and maintenance?

Is it sustainable?

It gets very cold in that desert.

1 / 5 (1) Nov 21, 2013
One kilometer ya say? Okee dokee. Please try it out over on the next plateau. Far away from the array. And please don't divert the telescope's science money for non-astronomical engineering experiments.

Pssst,,,,, ya shouldn't have mentioned your 3.5 m "proof of concept" thing. The potential for ridicule and derision are boundless. It calls to mind those inflatable Santa's that begin to pop up every year about this time.
1.3 / 5 (10) Nov 21, 2013
"The idea is to draw heat from the sun...."

At last, real man made global warming instead of just the Mann made type. Geo-engineering to our cold world rescue!

A typical 1MW nuclear plant puts out 8760 GWh so it will take 31 of these 281 Gwh towers to power a mid size town, covering 1519 sq. km, or 17 Manhattans, and so ten cities would need these to cover the area of Iceland, on formerly reflective deserts.

They even conveniently vent all that extra hot air right into the colder air above, and they do need to grab lots of extra heat with black surfaces for it to work at all, right? Not using black paint would amount to throwing most of the available energy away, I imagine.

Then they throw solar under the bus by revealing its literally dirty secret: continuous sandblasting ruin...

"Lindstrand notes that the desert environment would be an ideal location for such a tower due to the fine sand in the area that causes problems for traditional solar...."

Nukes NOW!
not rated yet Nov 21, 2013
The idea is to heat the air under the large canopy so that it warms and will rise up the tube. So transparent material is probably best.
2.3 / 5 (3) Nov 21, 2013
"Geo-engineering to our cold world rescue!" - NikkieTard

What are you blathering about now, Idiot.
5 / 5 (1) Nov 21, 2013
Wow - 1,000 meters high. I am wondering if it would have a framework of some kind - and then the flexible material stretched over the framework - or would it just be inflatable. Either way - what kind of wind load could it sustain? Any engineers have a perspective on that?
5 / 5 (2) Nov 21, 2013
The real calculation would be: how much of the updraft inside the chimney is needed to keep this tube upright (as any energy that goes to keeping it up is not going towards powering the turbines)? Or is he proposing using helium or hydrogen as a means to keep this standing?

In the first case this means there should be an optimal height that should vary according to the available temperature differential (i.e. vary with the time of day)
...which would actually seem like an ideal match to an inflatable structure now that I think about it.

For 20 million a pop maybe he should give it a go and see if it works. I'm sure his buddy Branson would have no qualms about sinking that amount of cash into a test balloon (no pun intended)
1 / 5 (2) Nov 21, 2013
Or is he proposing using helium or hydrogen as a means to keep this standing?
This would appear to have some things in common with

"A SpaceShaft is a proposed atmospherically buoyant structure that would serve as an elevator system to near-space altitudes. Simplified, one can imagine a giant vertical airship tethered at one end to the ground."
1 / 5 (4) Nov 23, 2013
While keeping the fabric tube upright is a problem, the greater problem is to resist cross section deflation. Look at a helium weather balloon, inflated at the top, deflated at the bottom. You cannot SUCK air up the tube.
Call me a pessimist if you like, but I cannot see this concept working.
5 / 5 (1) Nov 23, 2013

Since no one else pointed out your decimal point error yet, I will. 1 MW plant puts out 8760 MWh per year, not GWh. Therefore, if it works as advertised, this device powers about 32 "mid-sized" cities or one ALMA observatory(!).

It'd be nice to read more about the engineering behind this proposal.
1 / 5 (4) Dec 08, 2013
"tower out of cement"
You can't build anything out of cement. Try concrete.

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