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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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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. :)

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