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  (Source: Twitter)
Alternative power source might be a good idea if it wasn't for record helium shortages

Altaeros Energies is taking greenwashing to a new height with the debut of its bulbous helium filled Airborne Wind Turbine (AWT).  The company looks to replace one depletable resource that comes out of the ground (oil/coal) with another even scarcer resource that comes out of the ground (helium).

The company writes:

The company recently completed testing of a 35-foot scale prototype of the Altaeros Airborne Wind Turbine (AWT) at the Loring Commerce Center in Limestone, Maine. The prototype, fabricated in partnership with Doyle Sailmakers of Salem, Massachusetts, achieved several key milestones. The AWT climbed up 350 feet high, produced power at altitude, and landed in an automated cycle. In addition, the prototype lifted the top-selling Southwest Skystream turbine to produce over twice the power at high altitude than generated at conventional tower height. The turbine was successfully transported and deployed into the air from a towable docking trailer.

Altaeros is developing its first product to reduce energy costs by up to 65 percent by harnessing the stronger winds found over 1,000 feet high and reducing installation time from weeks to days. In addition, it is designed to have virtually no environmental or noise impact and to require minimal maintenance. The Altaeros AWT will displace expensive fuel used to power diesel generators at remote industrial, military, and village sites. In the long term, Altaeros plans to scale up the technology to reduce costs in the offshore wind market.

A glowing view by Inhabitat paints Altaeros as some sort of jedi messiahs, writing, "In an effort to harness strong high-altitude winds, the company Altaeros Energies has developed a floating wind turbine that’s a cross between a traditional windmill and a blimp. After some successful tests, the Altaeros team is confident that this new levitating wind turbine will be a viable clean energy option for remote villages and military sites."

Altaeros turbine
 The AWT -- a wonderfully non-green invention. [Image Source: Altaeros Energies]

Altaeros founder, CEO, and AWT inventor Ben Glass brags of his "levitating" turbines, "For decades, wind turbines have required cranes and huge towers to lift a few hundred feet off the ground where winds can be slow and gusty.  We are excited to demonstrate that modern inflatable materials can lift wind turbines into more powerful winds almost everywhere—with a platform that is cost competitive and easy to setup from a shipping container."

The platform is built upon helium -- a scarce natural resource mined out of the ground.

Helium supplies are running so low that it is estimated it may run out within 30 years.  Aside from the environmental impact of drilling to extract helium from gas pockets in the Earth's crust, there's the issue that much of the most critical physics and chemistry research relies on helium.  The helium crunch has literally led to millions of dollars in lost productivity at research centers such as CERN's Large Hadron Collider.

But no worries.  Let's take the last of our helium and float it up in big blimps with wind turbines attached.  Clearly this deserves some sort of prize for intellectual excellence.

Floating upwards toward fail! [Image Source: Altaeros Energies]

Sources: Altaeros Energies [PDF], Inhabitat, CTV

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By FITCamaro on 3/30/2012 8:18:10 AM , Rating: 4
But no worries. Let's take the last of our helium and float it up in big blimps with wind turbines attached. Clearly this deserves some sort of prize for intellectual excellence.

How is this any different than wanting to use rare resources like lithium and other rare earth metals to power hundreds of millions of cars?

RE: Well....yeah
By Manch on 3/30/2012 8:44:12 AM , Rating: 5
It's not. Both are stupid ideas.

RE: Well....yeah
By mcnabney on 3/30/2012 9:34:35 AM , Rating: 3
Batteries for electric cars would be 100% recycled.

Also, they could use hydrogen instead of helium.

RE: Well....yeah
By kattanna on 3/30/12, Rating: 0
RE: Well....yeah
By Motoman on 3/30/2012 11:23:37 AM , Rating: 2
RE: Well....yeah
By HrilL on 3/30/2012 11:47:19 AM , Rating: 2
Hydrogen is plenty safe. The problem with the Hindenburg happened to be that the paint they used was basically rocket fuel. Even without using hydrogen it would have ended in disaster at some point because of that.

Hydrogen can be used safely. At 1000ft the winds would dissipate any small leaks before it could reach any type of flames. Also no people would be on one of these wind turbines so they only danger would be falling debris.

RE: Well....yeah
By stusanagain on 3/30/2012 12:40:43 PM , Rating: 4
The problem with the Hindenburg happened to be that the paint they used was basically rocket fuel.
Myth. Mythbusters tried to duplicate that idea and failed miserably. Much as you would like it not to be the hydrogen, it was the hydrogen.

On the other hand, I agree that hydrogen is the lift element of choice here. Besides, if there is a farm of these turbines and one does catch fire, maybe it would cause a chain reaction and the whole farm would go up. MWA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!

RE: Well....yeah
By DopeFishhh on 3/30/2012 7:49:44 PM , Rating: 4
They concluded that it was a combination of both.

But yeah its easier to get and control hydrogen because it forms H2 which is much larger than HE and doesn't leak through materials (not as much at least).

You could always try a combination of H2 and HE, if there was tear you'd get both leaking out, not only would there be less H2 by volume but it'd be in a partially inert HE environment.

RE: Well....yeah
By MarkHark on 3/31/2012 10:57:02 PM , Rating: 2
the whole farm would go up

Or more appropriately, in this case, down... :P

RE: Well....yeah
By lagomorpha on 3/30/2012 5:16:04 PM , Rating: 3
That is exactly what i thought, these are unmanned. If one goes up in flames in the middle of nowhere now and then what's the problem?

RE: Well....yeah
By Calin on 4/2/2012 3:04:08 AM , Rating: 2
Because Helium in atmosphere will evade Earth's gravity field, unlike Lithium and so on in batteries which can be recycled. Just like iron is recycled (except that iron is so very inexpensive that one can obtain profits only by recycling it by the truckload)

RE: Well....yeah
By Nexos on 3/30/2012 8:52:06 AM , Rating: 4
Lithium, like most metals, can be recycled relatively easily without loosing any of its desired properties, so in essence "only" enough lithium is needed to saturate the battery market, afterwards all the required lithium could be taken from dead battery packs (assuming 100% efficiency during recycling, not realistic I know). Helium when used for cooling is also recycled with about a 95% efficiency (check out , a great vid about LHe) Helium used to fill balloons on the other hand is forever lost to us. Since its molecules are so small, they constantly leak thru the skin of any balloon and due to their low weight they float to the top of our atmosphere, where they are carried off into space by the solar wind.

Filling these thing with He seems like a colossal waste, even more so when you consider they could be filled with hydrogen just as easily, albeit slightly less safely.

RE: Well....yeah
By deathwombat on 3/30/2012 8:57:03 AM , Rating: 4
Yes, I can't see any reason not to use hydrogen. In the worst case scenario, there's never going to be a Hindenburg moment. "Oh the humanity! Wait, these things are unmanned. Never mind."

RE: Well....yeah
By docawolff on 3/30/2012 9:31:24 AM , Rating: 2
I agree--not only can we do a better job of designing hydrogen airships than we did back in 1930, but as a bonus, hydrogen has twice the buoyancy of helium. H2: .0902 grams/liter (at 0 C and 1 atm), He: 0.1785 grams per liter (same conditions). For reference, air: 1.294 grams/liter.

RE: Well....yeah
By theapparition on 3/30/2012 9:35:19 AM , Rating: 5
Hydrogen does make more sense in a lighter than air vehicle. The biggest problem with Helium, is that the molecule is physically smaller than Hydrogen. Hydrogen, by nature, is diatomic, or H2. It's diatomic molecule is physically larger than a single He atom. Hence there is less leakage and obviously less gas usage can only improve efficiencies somewhere.

Everyone is familiar with typical Helium party balloons that deflate after a few days. That's because even now there aren't good solutions for non-helium permeable materials. Even the best of fabrics will allow some helium escape over time. But using H2 and lower cost fabrics could drastically improve the cost ratio.

Unfortunately, like the word "nuclear"......hydrogen is such a bad word. I only wish we could live in a society where people didn't have knee jerk reactions to things.

RE: Well....yeah
By zozzlhandler on 3/30/2012 12:40:57 PM , Rating: 2
If you think hydrogen doesn't leak easily, you are mistaken. The problems dealing with hydrogen leakage are easily as severe as those with helium.

That said, for unmanned applications, hydrogen is an obvious candidate...

RE: Well....yeah
By JediJeb on 3/30/2012 3:22:05 PM , Rating: 2
One thing that would be even better than Hydrogen that I have yet to see any research on is using vacuum. It would require that an ultra light ultra rigid material be developed, but if you can design a material that would hold the shape of this lifting vehicle while not collapsing with a vacuum inside that would generate even more lift than hydrogen of helium.

I know we are probably still a long way from finding a material to accomplish this, but I have not even seen any mention of the idea even in theory yet.

RE: Well....yeah
By MarkHark on 3/31/2012 10:55:25 PM , Rating: 2
No problem. To have heard of this "in theory", you would likely have to be either a student on aeronautical engineering or an active researcher on this field.

That said, not being an engineer myself, I have pondered on this exact same point you speak of one or two decades back, and basically reached the same conclusions as you did.

So, I believe you are correct, and right to the point: the core of the problem is the structure must be rigid and strong enough to support a pressure gradient of ~1 atm without collapsing, yet be as light or lighter than an equivalent volume of hydrogen (or helium at least).

As to the material itself, my best guess in a foreseeable future would be some kind of carbon fiber for the rigid part of the structure (think of it as an endoskeleton), covered externally by a tightly-woven tissue composed mainly of thin, spiderweb-like organic fibers, and perhaps some kind of resin or plastic bath for the sake of impermeabilization.

On a (far) later time point, I'd hope for some kind of matter-repelling energy field, but that is just wild speculation on my part. :)

RE: Well....yeah
By superPC on 3/30/2012 9:32:07 AM , Rating: 2
Well if they fly them high enough even if it's filled with hydrogen it won't hurt anyone if it burns to a crisp. Someone might get hurt if hit by falling debris though, but if it was offshore than no problem there.

On other note: did anyone else notice Jason becomes more cynical these days?

RE: Well....yeah
By Reclaimer77 on 3/31/2012 9:54:41 AM , Rating: 1
On other note: did anyone else notice Jason becomes more cynical these days?

More like a realist. This is literally the DUMBEST "green" idea that's come down the pipe in a long time. But hey, with the Government tossing riches anyone's way who comes up with "alternative" solutions, even on the most fundamentally flawed level, why not?

I love the way Jason closed out this article with that nice punchline. Loved it.

RE: Well....yeah
By Qapa on 3/30/2012 9:14:34 AM , Rating: 1
Or even mining for oil.

All are finite materials.

All are good/acceptable ideas to start with. We then must keep track of the impacts each solution brings to the table.

We know that in 500 years, oil will no longer be sustaining our lifestyle, not as we currently use it anyway. And the same may be applicable for lithium for batteries or helium for this project. Preferably we can find solutions that have less of an impact than the current oil solution...

RE: Well....yeah
By geddarkstorm on 3/30/2012 11:53:57 AM , Rating: 2
Oil can be resynthesized, lithium and iron can be recycled, and all the matter (atoms) themselves stay on Earth even if they get recombined into new compounds. Helium is a very different story. Helium is lost to space and cannot and does not exist as a gas in our atmosphere naturally. We have to get helium from the ground in gas pockets. But once that's all used up, -natural helium on Earth will be gone forever-. In theory we could produce helium using fusion in the future, but that isn't happening any time soon.

RE: Well....yeah
By Stiggalicious on 3/30/2012 10:01:04 AM , Rating: 3
Lithium is not a rare resource - it's found in the ocean in quite large quantities and can easily be extracted. It's the rare earth metals that are rare and only available from China right now.

RE: Well....yeah
By Keeir on 3/30/2012 12:23:10 PM , Rating: 2
Even rare earth metals are not really that rare.

Just expensive and potentially polluting to dig up and refine. The majority of rare earth metals take significant processing to be effective.

RE: Well....yeah
By Kazinji on 3/31/2012 12:22:48 AM , Rating: 2
There are other places with rare earth metals but china ran them out of business. And now has jacked up the price and limited export of tons per year.

RE: Well....yeah
By someguy123 on 3/31/2012 7:17:55 AM , Rating: 2
...china never ran them out of business. there was no business until recently. no one could manage to get funding for mining out of fear of pollution. china paid to have rare earth mined since the 90s.

RE: Well....yeah
By Keeir on 3/30/2012 12:42:51 PM , Rating: 2
How is this any different than wanting to use rare resources like lithium and other rare earth metals to power hundreds of millions of cars?

#1. Rare Earth Metals are not required by a Lithium Electric Car. The NiMH battery type currently used in a Prius, does indeed need significant rare earth metals. Some types of electric motors do use Rare Earth Metals (Including the current Chevy Volt motor), but others do not.

The Model S, a beautiful, practical, albiet still too expensive model, uses almost no rare earth metals

#2. Lithium is hardly rare either. The reserves for the "easy" to get Lithium Carbonate Salts is around 13 million tonnes. Enough for more than 1 billion electric cars.

Lithium batteries are nearly 100% recyclable

#3. Electric cars wouldn't need to use a specific battery chemisty. Lithium batteries are significantly better than NiMH, Lead Acid, and other types current available for a variety of applications.... but better batteries could be invented in the future.

In comparison, these balloons use

#1 A gas already in short supply (apparently)
#2 A gas that can't be recycled
#3 The lightest possible gas

RE: Well....yeah
By FaaR on 3/30/2012 1:15:12 PM , Rating: 2
Huge difference, because lithium doesn't permeate through the casing of the battery and escape the earth's gravitational pull entirely, which helium does. Batteries can be reclaimed, their contents recycled.

Besides, what better use for lithium is there (other than as medication for wackos like you...? :P) Fossile-fueled cars are clearly killing both us and our environment.

RE: Well....yeah
By B~ on 3/30/2012 8:11:57 PM , Rating: 3
Helium on Earth is found in only a few places, like the midwest, I believe Kansas has it in abundance. It gets trapped in the same pockets in the Earth that natural gas does.

Earth's endowment of Helium comes from the radioactive decay of elements in the Earth's crust. When you hold a balloon you are basically holding a bag of alpha particles.

Helium is so light that it escapes the Earth's atomosphere, so once its released there is no way to get it back. Accordingly, you cannot refine or recover helium from the air, unlike the other gasses found in the air like nitrogen, or even some of the nobel gasses.

Helium is used in very special applications like cooling hospital imaging equipment, manufacturing LCD screens and microprocessors, and even high-tec specialized welding.

In summary it's an irreplaceable, nonrenewable, nonrecycleable resource that has dear uses to society. It's also somewhat ironic that it is scarce on Earth, because it is the second most abundent element in the known universe.

RE: Well....yeah
By B~ on 3/30/2012 8:31:22 PM , Rating: 3
In addition the the irony of the scarcity of helium on Earth and the abundence of it in the universe, I find it poetic that the universe's helium is the result of fusion, and the Earth's is the result of fission.

RE: Well....yeah
By MarkHark on 3/31/2012 11:06:36 PM , Rating: 2
I'd give you a +1, but I already posted elsewhere in this thread.

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