Helium-Filled Wind Turbine Harvests High-Altitude Energy

Elizabeth Montalbano

March 31, 2014

4 Min Read
Helium-Filled Wind Turbine Harvests High-Altitude Energy

We've told you about unconventional wind turbines that can be situated between buildings or float offshore in the ocean. Now a company spun off from Massachusetts Institute of Technology research has designed a helium-filled wind turbine that floats 1,000 feet in the air to harvest high-altitude wind energy, which can provide a significant amount of electricity.

Altaeros Energies was founded in 2010 at MIT by then graduate students Ben Glass and Adam Rein with the goal to offer the first commercial turbine capable of harnessing high-altitude wind at a low cost, Ryan Holy, Altaeros' business development manager, told Design News.


After MIT, Glass went on to an internship at SpaceX, where he gained experience designing an array of turbines and leveraged his interest in aerospace technology and wind harvesting technology to begin developing what he eventually called the buoyant airborne turbine (BAT). Now, Glass, Rein, and other MIT and Harvard graduates, as Altaeros, are set to test one of the four BAT prototypes they've designed and built over the next 18 months in Alaska.

The goal of the test -- in which the turbine is expected to generate 30 kW of power -- is to allow the company to monitor the product's power output, reliability, environmental impact, and maintenance needs, Holy told us. Engineers also want to see how it withstands environmental and atmospheric conditions. Once this demonstration concludes and any changes or modifications that need to be made are done to the system, Altaeros plans to commercialize BAT, he said.

BAT looks not unlike a dirigible or parade float, except it's shaped like a typical turbine and with blades coming out of its sides. The turbine uses a helium-inflatable shell to lift itself to 2,000 feet, where it can harness stronger and more consistent winds, Holy told us. "Wind speed increases with altitude above ground level and power density increases with a cubic factor of wind speed; a doubling of wind speed roughly equates to an eight-fold increase in power density," he said. "The turbine itself is similar to all wind turbines, using three blades and a horizontal-axis position. Electricity generated from the floating turbine is transmitted through a conductive tether to its mobile ground station, then on to the customer," Holy said.

In fact, BAT is held in place above the ground with multiple tethers that connect to this station after a system of automated winches lift it into the sky, Holy said. The winches also bring it back to earth once it is no longer in use.

Once BAT is in the air, it can be remotely monitored without need for a day-to-day operations crew. However, if the weather is extreme enough potentially to damage the turbine, it will autonomously dock, Holy told us. The system also requires periodic maintenance and inspection.

Some of the benefits of BAT, including its ability to generate energy at a low cost as well as be deployed rapidly -- in as little as 24 hours -- make it a good fit for rural and remote communities that don't have easy access to the electricity grid, Holy said. These locations include islands, as well as off-grid industries. Disaster-relief and military installations also benefit from the use of BAT, he added.

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About the Author(s)

Elizabeth Montalbano

Elizabeth Montalbano has been a professional journalist covering the telecommunications, technology and business sectors since 1998. Prior to her work at Design News, she has previously written news, features and opinion articles for Phone+, CRN (now ChannelWeb), the IDG News Service, Informationweek and CNNMoney, among other publications. Born and raised in Philadelphia, she also has lived and worked in Phoenix, Arizona; San Francisco and New York City. She currently resides in Lagos, Portugal. Montalbano has a bachelor's degree in English/Communications from De Sales University and a master's degree from Arizona State University in creative writing.

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